Bullying doesn't just exclusively occur in the schoolyard, it can take place anywhere where people regularly interact, such as the workplace.

Workplace bullying can be defined as any instance where a person or group of people intentionally and repeatedly use words or actions to distress or harm another person or group in the workplace.

It is important to note that the key factor in the definition of workplace bullying, is that it is a repeated behaviour. When a group of people come together, conflict can be normal and even help progress occur. However, if maltreatment is inflicted regularly by one party against another and there is a clear power imbalance, it must be resolved. Workplace bullying can have a significant effect on the physical and mental health of the bullied party and taint the overall company culture. This is because workplace bullying can be extremely detrimental to productivity and morale, increase absenteeism and 'presenteeism',  and lead to high rates of turnover. It is estimated that workplace bullying costs Australian businesses up to $36 billion a year in lost productivity.

Due to the seriousness of workplace bullying and the widespread effects it can have, not only for the victim, but also the overall company, Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) laws have been put in place to protect workers. These WHS regulations also ensure that employers take the necessary steps to prevent workplace bullying and have the appropriate systems in place to resolve instances of bullying when they arise.

Employers

Workplace bullying is a serious issue that must be prevented and addressed as soon as it becomes known.

Under WHS legislation, employers are obligated to ensure as far as reasonably practicable that employees are safe from injury and risk to health while in the workplace. Employers have a duty of care to proactively minimise risks in the workplace that may lead to bullying, and investigate, address, document and take action when a complaint of workplace bullying is raised. If employers fail to do so, they may be in breach of WHS laws and could be liable to penalties.

Some ways that employers can control the risk of workplace bullying, include:

  • Developing and implementing anti-bullying policies and procedures that set the standard of behaviour and outline the steps available to employees to deal with workplace bullying. It is important that these policies and procedure are accessible and regularly updated.
  • Creating and actively implementing systems to resolve workplace bullying and reduce/eliminate risk factors of bullying. -  Keeping lines of communication open and regularly checking in with workers to see if they are experiencing bullying, or are aware of any of their co-workers experiencing bullying.
  • Training managers and supervisors to be able to identify signs of bullying, and how to appropriately deal with cases of workplace bullying.
  • Providing workers with support, and access to resources and information to help them if they are experiencing bullying in the workplace.
  • Establishing and reinforcing an inclusive company culture that makes workers feel safe and secure. This includes management modelling positive behaviour that respects the wellbeing of all workers.

It should be a top priority for those in leadership and managerial positions to do whatever is practicable to prevent workplace bullying from happening and quickly resolve any bullying that is taking place. As mentioned earlier workplace bullying can have very detrimental effects on the wellbeing of the affected worker/s and can significantly impact the company as a whole, due to diminished productivity and reputation. A consistent and firm stance needs to be adopted when dealing with workplace bullying, so it sets the tone of zero tolerance.

For an example of a workplace bullying policy, click here.

Employees

Under WHS laws, employees also have a duty to take reasonable care to avoid negatively affecting the health and safety of another person or group of people in the workplace. This also includes the omission of action, meaning that if you are aware of bullying taking place and don't intervene or notify a relevant authority, you may be in breach of WHS legislation.

It is important that all employees are aware of their obligations under WHS laws to maintain the health and safety of themselves and others, particularly employees in higher up positions as they have more authority in the workplace and can influence what is considered to be acceptable behaviour.

So, what do you do if you're experiencing workplace bullying?

There should be no place for bullying in the professional environment. If you feel as though you are being bullied, there are steps you can take to deal with it.

Confront Your Bully

If you feel comfortable or safe enough to do so, tell your bully that their behaviour towards you is unacceptable and that they need to stop. It is important that you are confident, firm and show that you will no longer tolerate. Sometimes the other person may be unaware that their actions or words are actually harmful, and simply talking to them may make them change their ways. If the bullying persists, you should seek help and further action.

Document The Instances of Bullying

To strengthen your claims and provide a history of the bullying, you should document the details of the bullying, including the perpetrator, any witnesses, what was said or the bullying behaviour that was exhibited, the time and date, where the bullying took place, etc. You should also keep any tangible pieces of evidence you receive from the bully, such as notes, emails, memos, etc. It is important that your journal of these bullying events sticks to the facts.

Investigate Your Workplace's Bullying Policy and Complaint Procedure

Find out what your workplace's bullying policy and complaint procedure is, so you are informed of your rights and aware of how your workplace will assist you in resolving the issue.

Notify Your Supervisor/Manager

It is your right to feel safe at work, so if you feel as though your work environment is no longer a positive s space due to bullying, you should reach out to a relevant authority and make them aware of the bullying you are experiencing. This will allow official intervention to occur and help get the gears turning towards resolution.

Escalation

If you feel as though there has been inadequate effort to resolve the issue and provide you with a safe work environment, then you have the option to escalate your grievance even further and seek help from external avenues.

Work Health & Safety Regulators

Work health and safety regulators have their own individual compliance and prosecution policies, and will assess and respond to complaints of bullying in accordance with them. The compliance and prosecution policies of Work Health & Safety Regulators take into account issues such as the immediate risk to health and safety and possible breaches of work health and safety legislation. The Fair Work Commission's anti-bullying jurisdiction is only limited to preventing the worker form being bullied in the workplace, it cannot issue fines or penalties, or award financial compensation to the victim/s.

Fair Work Commission

Workers may be able to apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the workplace bullying. It is important to note that not all Australian workers are covered by the Fair Work Commission's anti-bullying jurisdiction, such as those employed by local councils and state governments.

Union

Your union can provide you with advice and guidance on your rights in the workplace regarding bullying. Also, pressure from unions may encourage your workplace to treat the issue with more seriousness and boost the efforts of your workplace to resolve the bullying.

Police

If the workplace bullying you are experiencing is violent or threatens your safety, it may be a criminal offence and you should contact the police. If it is an immediate threat to you, call 000. However, if the situation is not urgent, you can contact your local police station.

Australian Human Rights Commission

If you are being bullied on the basis of your race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or pregnancy, you can contact the Australian Human Rights Commission to file a complaint.

There are also a number of prominent anti-bullying and mental health organisations that can provide you with support, resources and information. Some of the main organisations, include: