Frequently asked questions - Bullying

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This page contains information on bullying in the workplace.

What is and what isn't bullying in the workplace

What is bullying in the workplace?

Bullying in the workplace may be described as repeated inappropriate behaviour that can occur at work and/or in the course of employment. It may be direct or indirect, verbal or physical, or some form of negative interaction between one or more persons against another or others. Bullying behaviour can be regarded as undermining an individual's right to dignity at work. 

An isolated incident of behaviour as described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but as a one-off incident, is not considered to be bullying. Bullying involves a repeated pattern of behaviour.  Whilst one-off incidents may not be defined as bullying, the behaviours may still breach a workplace’s Code of Conduct policy or a similar policy that outlines acceptable standards of behaviour. These breaches should be managed, as soon as possible, in accordance with the workplace’s policies and procedures. 

Bullying in the workplace may harm, intimidate, threaten, victimise, undermine, offend, degrade or humiliate another person. 

Bullying in the workplace can take place between staff members or between employees and the customers, patients, contractors or visitors that they are dealing with. Young employees appear to be particularly vulnerable to bullying, especially in workplaces where older employees may exert power and influence in an inappropriate way.

Bullying in the workplace may be a symptom of more global issues in a workplace, such as the workplace culture, the presence of psychological risk factors for work-related stress, leadership styles, systems of work, work relationships, and workforce characteristics.  This is discussed in more detail under the How bullying can be prevented section. By addressing these issues, a workplace may also prevent and manage bullying in the workplace. 

What is not considered bullying in the workplace?

Employers, managers and supervisors may take reasonable management action to direct and control the way work is carried out. It is reasonable for managers and supervisors to allocate work and provide feedback on an employee’s performance. These actions are not considered bullying if they are carried out lawfully and in a reasonable manner, taking the particular circumstances into account.

Examples of reasonable management action include:

  • Setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines; 
  • Rostering and allocating working hours where the requirements are reasonable; 
  • Transferring an employee for operational reasons; 
  • Deciding not to select an employee for promotion where a reasonable process is followed; 
  • Informing an employee about unsatisfactory work performance in an honest, fair and constructive way; 
  • Informing an employee about inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way; 
  • Implementing organisational changes or restructuring; and 
  • Taking disciplinary action, including suspension or terminating employment. 

Discrimination and sexual harassment

Unreasonable behaviour may involve discrimination or sexual harassment which in isolation is not considered to be bullying.

Discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably than others because they have a particular characteristic or belong to a particular group of people. For example, it would be discriminatory not to hire or promote a woman because she is pregnant or may become pregnant. Sexual harassment is associated with unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. 

Discrimination and sexual harassment in employment is unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws.

The OSH Act includes specific protections against discriminatory conduct for people raising health and safety concerns or performing legitimate safety-related functions.

It is possible for a person to be bullied, sexually harassed and discriminated against at the same time.

Workplace conflict

Differences of opinion and disagreements are generally not considered to be bullying in the workplace. People can have differences and disagreements in the workplace without engaging in repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety. However, in some cases conflict that is not managed may escalate to the point where it meets the definition of bullying in the workplace.

Whilst workplace conflict may not meet the definition of bullying, the behaviours may still breach a workplace’s Code of Conduct policy or a similar policy that outlines acceptable standards of behaviour.  Employers should address workplace conflict as early as possible to avoid it escalating and address any breaches of the workplace’s behavioural standards policy through the workplace’s relevant procedure.

Workplace conflict that is unresolved and on-going may lead work-related stress and psychological injuries. Therefore workplace conflict should be addressed in the workplace as soon as practicable.

Is workplace bullying a hazard? 

A hazard is:

in relation to a person, means anything that may result in —

(a) injury to the person; or
(b) harm to the health of the person;

Bullying in the workplace can affect the safety and health of workers. For this reason it should be managed like any other workplace safety and health hazard.

It is easier to prevent bullying than it is to intervene after an event or mediate when a pattern of bullying has been established. There can be significant cost savings for employers that maintain a workplace free from bullying behaviour.

What are the effects of bullying on the workplace?

The burden associated with workplace bullying are numerous. The most obvious include:

  • Pain and suffering from injury and illness;
  • Disability and impairment; and
  • Financial implications for business.

What are consequences for businesses of not managing workplace bullying?

Psychological injuries as a result of work-related stress (including bullying in the workplace) can result in accepted Workers’ Compensation Claims. Workers’ Compensation claims for stress usually result in workers being absent from the workplace for long periods of time.  In relation to Workers’ Compensation claims for stress, Safe Work Australia (2013) stated 'the loss of productivity and absence of workers is costing Australian businesses more than $10 billion per year.'

As bullying in the workplace can develop into work-related stress, it can have direct and indirect financial implications for businesses.

As employees’ work-related stress levels increase, organisational performance can be diminished and be measured by the following:

  • A reduction in productivity and efficiency;
  • A decline in job satisfaction, morale and cohesion;
  • An increase in absenteeism and sickness absence;
  • An increase in employee turnover;
  • An increase in accidents and injuries;
  • An increase in conflict and a decline in quality of relationships;
  • A reduction in client satisfaction; and
  • Increased health care expenditure and Workers’ Compensation claims.

Therefore, it makes good business sense to prevent and manage bullying in the workplace.

What are possible effects of bullying in the workplace on employees?

When an employee experiences adverse health effects from a psychological hazard such as bullying in the workplace, they may experience a stress response expressed as symptoms and signs through four pathways in their body:  Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, and Behavioural.  Table 1 below displays the signs and symptoms under each of the pathways. 

If you are experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, or have concerns about your health, please consult your medical practitioner.

Table 1. Signs and symptoms

Physical Cognitive Emotional Behavioural
  • Increased heart rate (pounding)
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Sweaty palms; tightness in the chest
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Tightness in neck/back muscles
  • Trembling
  • Tics or twitching
  • Stuttering
  • Other speech difficulties
  • Pupil dilation
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Fatigue
  • Proneness to accidents
  • Slumped posture
  • Shallow breathing
  • Susceptibility to minor illnesses
  • Dryness of mouth or throat
  • Butterflies in stomach 
  • Forgetfulness​
  • Preoccupation
  • Blocking
  • Errors in judging distance
  • Diminished or exaggerated fantasy life
  • Reduced creativity
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Mental confusion
  • Lack of concentration
  • Diminished productivity
  • Lack of attention to detail
  • Orientation to past
  • Over-sensitivity to criticism
  • Irritability
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Angry outbursts
  • Depression
  • Jealousy
  • Feeling ‘up-tight’
  • Suspiciousness
  • Diminished initiative
  • Loneliness
  • Helplessness
  • Insecurity
  • Frustration
  • Lack of interest
  • Tendency to cry
  • Critical of oneself and others
  • Lacking in confidence
  • Self-deprecation
  • Exhaustion
  • Desire to escape
  • Increased smoking
  • Aggressive driving
  • Having accidents
  • Clumsiness
  • Nervous laughter
  • Panic
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse
  • Carelessness
  • Eating too much
  • Fast (even incoherent) speech
  • Chewing fingernails

 

Changes in workplace behaviour may also be observed when an employee is experiencing psychological symptoms and signs. This includes, but not limited to:

  • Increased absenteeism from work;
  • Increased tardiness;
  • Increased sick leave;
  • Decline in productivity and performance standards;
  • Impaired concentration or ability to make decisions which increases the risk of injury; and
  • Reluctance to return to workplace area where the event occurred (particularly in circumstances which involved aggression, violence and trauma). 

The person’s initial response to personal or work-related stress is in itself not an injury.  The effect (signs and symptoms) are usually of short duration and have no lasting effects once the stressful situation has passed. Acute or chronic harm to health may result when the employee is unable to cope with persistent and sustained exposure over a long period of time. This sustained exposure can result in psychological injuries such as Depression, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Disorders and self-harm injuries. 

Bullying in the workplace is one of the risk factors for work-related stress and the development of psychological and physical injuries. 

What is the law

The OSH Act and regulations place certain duties on employers, employees, self-employed people, manufacturers, designers, importers and suppliers and must be complied with.

Duties include:

  • Not exposing workers to hazards;
  • Providing information, instruction and training;
  • Conducting risk assessments;
  • Investigating hazards or injuries that have been reported to employers by employees;
  • Notifying WorkSafe of reportable injuries; and
  • Providing safe workplaces.

What are duties of the employer under the Act in relation bullying?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 requires employers to ensure so far as is practicable a working environment in which employees are not exposed to hazards.  

Bullying in the workplace should be treated as any other hazard at the workplace. If unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour, or the potential for such behaviour is identified, there is a high risk of psychological and/or physical harm.  Therefore steps should be taken to stop the behaviour.   

It is the duty of the employer to so far as is practicable ensure that adequate systems are in place to prevent or stop the bullying behaviour.  To address bullying in the workplace, or the potential for bullying, employers should: 

  • Consult with employees and safety and health representatives;
  • Implement adequate policies and procedures, which could include grievance procedures, a bullying prevention policy or procedures for reporting and investigating bullying in the workplace issues;
  • Appoint a contact person, grievance officer or mediator as a first contact point for enquiries, concerns and complaints;
  • Provide information and training on the relevant policies and procedures; and
  • Monitor indicators or bullying in the workplace, including absence from work (sick leave, workers compensation leave, long service leave, unpaid work), turnover of staff and results of formal exit interviews.

If a bullying concern is reported to the employer, the employer must within reasonable time investigate the matter that has been reported, determine action, if any, and notify the employee(s) of the outcome.  To be able to investigate raised concerns and resolve issues at the workplace the employer has the right to ask for more detailed information. 

Employers are also required to attempt to resolve safety and health issues raised in the workplace in accordance with relevant procedures.  This includes reported bullying in the workplace issues.

What are duties of employees under the Act in relation to bullying? 

Employees should take reasonable care for their own safety and health at work.  They should also avoid adversely affecting the safety or health of any person in the workplace through any act or omission.  Every employee must be made aware of their duty not to place the safety and health of others at risk by engaging in bullying or, where they are in a position of authority, to take steps to stop bullying if and when it happens. 

Employees should follow the employer’s safety instructions, cooperate with their employer on work-related safety and health matters, use personal protective equipment provided and report to their employer any work-related injuries or anything that they consider to be a hazard in their workplace (which could include bullying).

What other legislation may be applicable to bullying in the workplace? 

Dealing with bullying in the workplace may involve laws other than the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984.  Some of these laws are listed below: 

  • A worker may apply to the Fair Work Commission (the Commission) for an order to stop bullying at work from continuing. This right comes from the Fair Work Act 2009 (the Fair Work Act);
  • When bullying involves direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, marital status, pregnancy, impairment, religious or political conviction, age, gender history, sexual orientation, family responsibility or family status, sexual or racial harassment, or spent conviction in accordance with the Equal Opportunity Act 1984, the employee may lodge a complaint with the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity; 
  • Should an employee consider he or she has been dismissed as a result of making a complaint in relation to bullying, or is forced to resign due to the effects of bullying the employee may be entitled to lodge a claim with the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission under the unfair dismissal provisions in the Industrial Relations Act 1979
  • The Public Sector Management Act 1994 governs the behaviour of public sector employees and bullying can be a breach of the Western Australian Public Sector Code of Ethics; and
  •  Any physical assault, threats of violence, sexual assault and stalking are criminal matters and should be referred to the Western Australia Police.  

How should I respond?

I am being bullied at work. What do I do?

Many individuals at some time during the course of their working life may feel they have been treated unfairly, inappropriately and/or unreasonably at work.  There are many circumstances and scenarios that may make one feel this way and not all cases can be considered bullying.  If you believe you have been treated unfairly, inappropriately and/or unreasonably at work, your case may best be dealt by range of agencies that address these issues - Find the most appropriate organisation

Bullying may be described as repeated inappropriate behaviour that can occur at work and/or in the course of employment. It may be direct or indirect, verbal or physical, or some form of negative interaction between one or more persons against another or others. Bullying behaviour can be regarded as undermining an individual's right to dignity at work. 

Many scenarios may be perceived as bullying but may not be, examples include conflict and disagreement with colleagues or managers, performance management, unwelcome jokes that stop once its brought to the person’s attention, and high level monitoring of work by a manager or 'micro management'. 

Experiencing being bullied and being accused of being a bully can both be very upsetting and has the potential to affect one’s health. Therefore careful assessment and thought about the situation is important before putting forward suggestions that one has been bullied, as premature accusations can escalate conflict and be have negative consequences for everyone involved (i.e. damaged reputation, damaged work and personal relationships, and work-related stress) . 

Every situation is different, however bullying can be stopped.  How you handle bullying will depend on your particular work environment and the nature of the bullying. If you are bullied you can take action informally or follow a more formal approach. 

The following informal steps are recommended as a first approach in dealing with most bullying cases:

1.     Refer to your workplace policies and procedures

Check whether your workplace has a policy and reporting procedure that relates to inappropriate workplace behaviour such as conflict, code of conduct breaches, discrimination and harassment, and bullying behaviour. The policy should outline how the employer will prevent and respond to inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Your supervisor, manager or human resources officer will be able to tell you whether there are relevant policies in place. Information on your inappropriate workplace behaviour policy may also be provided in:

  • Induction information, awareness sessions, in-house newsletters and displayed on notice boards; and
  • Discussions at staff meetings and in team briefings such as tool box meetings.

2.     Seek advice

To be able to take the most appropriate action it is important to first find out whether the behaviour you are experiencing or witnessing is inappropriate workplace behaviour. It can be difficult in times of stress to be objective about what is happening to you. Therefore, in considering the questions below, it may be helpful to seek the perspective of another person who is not involved to help you determine whether the behaviour would be considered inappropriate. If available in your workplace, you can also discuss the situation with a human resources officer, safety and health representative (SHR) or union representative.

Q. Is the behaviour being repeated?

Repeated behaviour refers to the persistent nature of the behaviour and can involve a range of behaviour over time.

When considering if the behaviour may be considered bullying, it is important to determine if the behaviour is being repeated. When considering if the behaviour is more likely to be a conflict situation and/or code of conduct breach, it is important to remember that the behaviour does not have to be repeated.

Q. Is the behaviour unreasonable?

Unreasonable behaviour means behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening.

Q. Is the behaviour creating a risk to your health and safety?

Inappropriate workplace behaviour can be harmful to the person experiencing it and to those who witness it, although the effects will vary depending on individual characteristics as well as the situation and may include one or more of the following:

  • Distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance;
  • Physical illness, for example muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems;
  • Deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends;
  • Depression; and
  • Thoughts of suicide.

If the workplace behaviour involves violence, for example physical assault or the threat of physical assault, it should be reported to the police.

3.     Speak to the other person

If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, calmly tell the other person you object to their behaviour and ask that it stop. They may not realise the effect their behaviour is having on you and your feedback may give them the opportunity to change their actions. You may also consider suggesting an alternate way of behaving in the circumstance that is acceptable to you.

If you choose to deal with the situation personally you should consider:

  • Acting as early as possible;
  • Raising your concerns informally and in a non-confrontational manner;
  • Not retaliating;
  • Focusing on unwanted behaviour rather than the person; and
  • Being open to feedback.

You may ask your safety and health representative (SHR), union representative or supervisor for assistance with this process or to accompany you when you approach the person.

4.     Keep a record

Keep a record of what happened, including date, time, persons involved, witnesses and what was said and done. It can be hard for someone else to understand what happened unless you can properly explain what occurred and what effect it had on you.  This is particularly important in situations that resulted in you feeling threatened, intimidated, humiliated, belittled etc.  It is important to think about how and why the experience had the impact upon you that it did. For example:

  • Was it the tone of voice or body language?
  • Was it the choice of words used?
  • Was it when and where the incidents occurred (e.g. in front of others)?

Keeping a record will assist you to recall and explain what happened to someone else.

5.     Monitor and report it

If you believe you are experiencing or witnessing inappropriate workplace behaviour, monitor it. If you notice a pattern or it happens regularly than its best to report it sooner than later. Your employer cannot address the problem if they do not know about it. If your supervisor is the person whose behaviour is concerning you, speak to the next person of seniority in your workplace.

You can make an employee report in any of the following ways:

  • Informing your supervisor or manager
  • Informing your (SHR) or union representative
  • Using established reporting procedures.

SHRs can make a report on your behalf if you give them permission. They can also give you advice on how to make a report. SHRs do not have any other role or responsibility for resolving the matter. They may, however, work with your employer to improve the policies and procedures for preventing and responding to inappropriate workplace behaviour.

6.     Seek support

It is important to be aware of the support services that may be available to you at your workplace. This may include requesting a support person to be present at meetings or interviews, accessing the Employee Assistance Program or using a counselling service. Please click on link for further information on the role of a support person. Using a counselling service may help you to develop ways of dealing with the situation or the effects of the inappropriate workplace behaviour.

More formal procedures may be required if the informal procedures are not successful or in situations where the allegations are more serious and there has been less favourable treatment or actual physical or psychological harm.  This should be confirmed by preliminary enquiries before a formal investigation is undertaken.   

If the employer concludes that a formal investigation is warranted, a person who is not involved in that particular incident should undertake the investigation.

Procedural fairness must be observed in all dealings with persons accused of workplace bullying.

I am being accused of bullying in the workplace. What do I do?

Experiencing being bullied and being accused of being a bully can both be very upsetting and has the potential to affect one’s health. Therefore, a considered and thoughtful approach to the situation is required to minimise the affect on health for all parties involved. 

Rights of any person accused of workplace bullying

Procedural fairness (otherwise known as natural justice) must be observed in all dealings with persons accused of bullying in the workplace for two reasons.

  1. It is essential that people be protected against false and malicious accusations. Persons may be falsely accused of bullying in the workplace because of a desire on the part of the other persons to harm them or an over-reaction to a trivial or isolated incident.  Indeed false accusations can be part of the bullying process in itself and people could be accused of bullying as a means of covering up bullying by someone else.
  2. If a person accused of bullying is denied procedural fairness, then any action taken against him or her may be overturned should he or she appeal against it even if the original accusation was correct.

Procedural fairness is generally considered to include the following rights to:

  • Be fully informed of the complaint, including being told the name of the person making the complaint;
  • Reply in full to the complaint;
  • Be considered innocent until proven to be guilty;
  • Representation by a person of his or her choice;
  • Have information about the complaint restricted to those who are directly involved;
  • Be given the benefit of any reasonable doubt;
  • Be informed of any rights of appeal that may exist against any decision made on the matter; and
  • Have all mention of the matter removed from his or her personal records if the case against him or her is not proven. 

Things you can do

Being accused of bullying someone can be upsetting and come as a shock but it's important to be open to feedback from others, self-reflect on how your behaviour may have been interpreted and to be prepared to change your behaviour if it has been misunderstood or if you believe it can improve workplace relations. In many cases, actions which were not intended to offend have been perceived as bullying by others and you may not be aware that your behaviour has hurt others.  An informal conversation with this person can be enough to resolve the issue. Sometimes, the person offended is satisfied with: 

  • An explanation of how you viewed the situation and that it was not your intention to offend;
  • An apology if you were misunderstood or acted impulsively; and
  • Or if relevant, some assurance to the offended person that you will be careful about the way you respond or behave in the future as a precaution to prevent causing offence. 

What to expect of your employer or process related to resolving the issue

An employer under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1984) has a primary duty of care to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that workers and other persons are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from the business or undertaking. This includes having systems in place to prevent and respond to allegations of workplace bullying. 

If someone has made a report about perceiving bullying in the workplace, the workplace should:

  • Respond to the bullying report quickly and reasonably in accordance with the policies and procedures at the workplace;
  • Treat all reports seriously;
  • Inform all relevant parties of the process of how the matter will be dealt with;
  • Maintain confidentiality;
  • Allow the parties to explain their version of events;
  • Remain neutral and impartial towards everyone involved;
  • Advise all parties of support options available, such as counselling; 
  • Allow parties to have a support person present at interviews and meetings, for example a friend, SHR, or union representative;
  • Keep records, for example of conversations, meetings and interviews; and
  • Attempt to resolve the matter.

There may be a number of ways to resolve the issue including clarification of a situation, providing a sincere apology, mediation, or conducting an investigation of the allegations. If the matter is resolved, your employer should follow-up with the parties at a later date to review whether the actions taken have been effective. Your employer may also provide the parties with ongoing support or provide information on external support services, such as an Employee Assistance Program

A worker has reported bullying in the workplace. As an employer, what do I do?

Bullying in the workplace is best managed by responding as soon as possible after becoming aware there is a problem. Responses to bullying in the workplace will vary depending on the situation, the number of parties involved and the size and structure of the workplace. 

Consider the following when responding to bullying in the workplace:

Is the behaviour bullying or not? 

The type of behaviour occurring may need to be determined to develop an appropriate response. For example, if the behaviour is discrimination or sexual harassment, or a breach of the workplace’s Code of Conduct policy, it will require a different response to bullying in the workplace.  

Does the situation warrant measures to minimise the risk of ongoing harm to employees? 

If necessary interim measures should be taken to minimise the risk to health or safety. This may involve temporarily reassigning tasks, separating the parties involved or granting leave. 

Do I have a clear understanding of the issues?  

Seek additional information to ensure a clear understanding of the parties involved and the specific behaviour or behaviours thought to be unreasonable. This may be achieved by speaking to others who may have observed or participated in the behaviour. 

Do I need additional information or assistance? 

People with specialist roles in the organisation or external specialists may be able to provide information, help identify the issues and develop potential responses to address the behaviour.

Can the matter be safely resolved between the parties or at a team level? 

In some situations it may be possible to use a no-blame conciliatory approach to help individuals reach an outcome that will ensure the unreasonable behaviour ceases. A proposed resolution should be discussed with the person who reported the behaviour to check they are comfortable with it.  If the person chooses to resolve issues by self-managing the situation, it usually involves telling the other person the unreasonable behaviour is not welcome and asking for it to stop. If an individual does not feel safe or confident with approaching the other person they can seek the assistance of a supervisor or manager, human resources officer, their SHR or union representative. If a supervisor or manager approaches an individual directly about their behaviour they should record the actions taken. Supervisors should know how and when it is appropriate to escalate an issue. 

Should the matter be progressed to an investigation? 

Depending on the severity or complexity, some matters may need to be investigated. The section titled, Investigation, provides further guidance on the investigation process for reports of bullying in the workplace. For more detailed information please refer to section 'A worker has reported bullying in the workplace.  As an employer what do I do'.

Should I conduct a risk assessment? 

To have a wider scope understanding of the situation and what should be done about it, apply a risk management approach.  Risk management of bullying in the workplace involves a systematic and planned approach that covers the associated risks to employee safety.  A risk assessment involves identifying the sources of risk, risk factors and the consequences if a worker is exposed to a hazard. The section titled, 'How can bullying be prevented' provides further guidance on the risk management process for bullying in the workplace. 

How can bullying be prevented?

A risk assessment for bullying in the workplace can be incorporated into an overall risk assessment of work-related stress as bullying in the workplace is a risk factor for work-related stress. Psychologically safe and healthy workplace risk management toolkit provides information on the range of risk factors and a sample risk assessment tool. 

How to identify the hazard

Bullying in the workplace is a potential hazard for all workplaces. It can occur wherever people work together and in all types of workplaces. Through identifying risk factors in the work environment, a workplace can assess the risk of bullying in the workplace occurring and implement practicable and appropriate controls. 

Exposure to bullying in the workplace and other psychological risk factors may result in physical and psychological injuries. Hazard identification for psychological injuries follows a similar process to hazard identification for physical injuries or harm to health. Different methods can be used complimentary to each other to determine the presence of each psychological risk factor, such as bullying in the workplace. Such methods include:

  • Regular consultation: regular consultation with workers and where they exist safety and health representatives (SHR) and health and safety committees, including discussions aimed at finding out if bullying is occurring or if there are factors likely to increase the risk of bullying in the workplace. Consultation also includes seeking feedback when workers leave the business, for example holding exit interviews and seeking feedback from managers, supervisors or other internal and external parties.
  • Analysing workplace data: Workplace data may be examined or analysed to determine trends and the presence of work-related risks in the workplace. Examples of workplace data includes, but is not limited to, information from exit interviews, number of grievances related to work-related stress, absenteeism and turnover data, number of worker’s compensation claims for stress/ bullying. 
  • Direct observations: Often a walk around the workplace which involves informal conversations with employees and directly observing how employees are working and interacting with each other can identify the presence of psychological risk factors the work environment. ‘Walk arounds’ or direct observation should be conducted as regularly as possible; once a week as a minimum. 
  • Employee surveys:  Employee surveys are designed to take the ‘pulse’ of an organisation or work area at that point in time. Employee surveys are a common method for measuring psychological hazards in the workplace by assessing employees’ perception of the workplace and their work experiences. Employee surveys are typically a cost effective means to assess the entire workforce in a confidential and anonymous manner compared to other ways to obtain the information such as employee focus groups and interviews for example. Employee surveys use specific questions to identify the presence of psychological risk factors in the organisation overall and in work location/ groups. Employee surveys can include specific questions that measure the degree of psychological distress and physical symptoms.   

More information on conducting hazard identification and each of these methods is located in the  sample Psychologically safe and healthy workplace risk management toolkit. 

How to assess the risk?

A risk assessment for bullying in the workplace should include:

  • Identifying risk factors at work which could increase the potential for inappropriate workplace behaviour
  • Identifying people who might be affected by these inappropriate workplace behaviour
  • Deciding whether preventative action in place is sufficient
  • Taking action to prevent inappropriate workplace behaviour continuing and growing to an unacceptable level
  • Reviewing the success of the control measures.

By examining the gathered information from the section – 'how to identify the hazard' your organisation should have sufficient information to assess the risk of bullying in your workplace. The information gathered will assist your organisation to identify the risk factors, the people who might be affected, and evaluating whether current controls in place are effective. It will also assist you in determining the likelihood of an injury and the severity of the injury.

WorkSafe have developed a sample toolkit which outlines the process and provides a sample risk assessment. 

How to control risks of bullying in the workplace?

Like any other hazard, the risk of bullying in the workplace needs to be controlled and monitored. Controlling the risk bullying in the workplace requires a systematic, planned and structured approach. The appropriateness of the solutions identified will vary according to the size and complexity of the organisation, available resources and especially the unique types of risk factors faced by the workplace.

Minimising inappropriate workplace behaviour does not have to be costly. The application of good management practices that include appropriate organisation of work, a healthy corporate attitude, successfully managed change and an appropriate management style will all contribute towards reducing the risk of bullying in the workplace. Examples of controls are displayed in Table 2.

Table 2 - Examples of controls
Risk Factor Examples of controls
Autonomy/control Allow employees flexibility, where possible, in how they achieve their outcomes. Engage employees in making decisions about the way they do their work.
Job demands Ensure timelines and workload is realistic. Be clear about performance expectations.
Support Supportive leadership, EAP, Peer Supporters, Grievance officers,, provide a workplace culture that supports open communication so staff feel comfortable in discussing issues.
Role conflict/ambiguity Ensure  all employees have a clear job description and there is a clear distinction of roles and responsibilities.
Relationships Mediation, coaching, leadership development.
Change Structured change management process, regular communication re the changes.
Rewards and recognition Provide feedback at team meetings and on a one-on-one basis.
Organisational justice Ensure processes and procedures are carried out in a fair manner, are transparent and have a right of appeal.

 

What sort of training may be practicable?

Employees, including managers and supervisors should be aware of their roles in relation to preventing and responding to bullying in the workplace and have the appropriate skills to take action where necessary.

Induction training for workers should include information on:

  • The standards of behaviour expected in the workplace including the use of social media and the organisation’s information technology equipment, if relevant;
  • How bullying in the workplace should be reported and how such reports are managed; and
  • Where to go for more information and assistance.

Training for employees can be provided in various ways including through online courses, podcasts and face-to-face training. Training is available through consultants and registered training providers on bullying in the workplace topics. Whilst this training may assist individuals to develop their coping skills, it may not include information that is specific to the psychological risk factors that have been identified in their work environment. Therefore, your workplace may still need to conduct its own training for employees.

For example, a training program should cover:

  • Awareness of the impact certain behaviours can have on others;
  • The OSH duties and responsibilities relating to bullying in the workplace;
  • Measures used to prevent bullying in the workplace from occurring;
  • How individuals can respond to bullying in the workplace;
  • How to report bullying in the workplace; 
  • How bullying in the workplace reports will be responded to including time frames; and
  • Support services available for employees.

Managers and supervisors should also be trained in how to respond to bullying in the workplace reports and in skills that will help develop productive and respectful workplace relationships.

Training should be tailored to meet the needs of workers and suit the nature of the workplace and the workforce, for example levels of literacy.

Providing employees with information

Information about bullying in the workplace can be given to workers in a number of ways including:

  • Talking directly with employees by holding team meetings, tool box talks or speaking one-on-one with them at the beginning of the work day;
  • Handing out company newsletters or pamphlets;
  • Including information sheets in payslips;
  • Displaying posters around the workplace; and
  • Through email messages or intranet announcements.

How to monitor the risks of bullying in the workplace?

Once control measures have been implemented they should be monitored and reviewed to ensure they are effective in managing the risk of bullying in the workplace. If the control measures do not work the situation should be analysed further to determine how to fix the problem.  A review should be carried out in consultation with employees and their safety and health representatives (if any).

A review can be conducted at any time but it is recommended it is conducted:

  • When allegation/s of inappropriate workplace behaviour have been substantiated;
  • At the request of a SHR or a health and safety committee; 
  • When new or additional information or research about inappropriate workplace behaviour becomes available; and
  • According to a scheduled review date.

Information for a review can be obtained from the same sources used when identifying the potential for bullying in the workplace, for example:

  • Confidential surveys;
  • Exit interviews; and
  • Records of sick leave.  

Gathering evidence to answer the following questions may help in a review:

  • Are supervisors and managers trained to recognise and deal with bullying in the workplace?
  • Has the training been effective?
  • Has awareness been raised amongst employees about bullying in the workplace?
  • Do employees speak up about unreasonable behaviour?
  • Has there been a change in workplace morale and behaviour over time?
  • Are bullying in the workplace policies being consistently enforced?
  • Are reports of bullying in the workplace being responded to quickly and effectively?

Results of reviews and suggested improvements should be reported to managers, board members and where applicable safety and health representatives and health and safety committees.  

Can bullying go unreported?

Employees are less likely to report bullying and cooperate in enquiries if they:

  • Don’t recognise bullying behaviour;
  • Have a lack of knowledge about bullying behaviours and their effects;
  • Are unsure about the correct procedure;
  • Don’t know where to seek help;
  • Fear retribution from the bully or bullies;
  • Feel intimidated or embarrassed;
  • Believe that bullying is part of the workplace culture;
  • Feel that nothing will change; and / or
  • Feel that their opportunities for promotion in the organisation or the industry will be affected.

Some employees may not be aware that the organisation they work for has established bullying prevention and management procedures and that their reports will be dealt with in a proper manner.

Even if a person does not complain about bullying in the workplace, there may still be offended or affected by the behaviour and the behaviour may still be unacceptable. 

It is important for employers to encourage a culture of reporting of incidents and hazards in the workplace. This enables the employers to conduct a more accurate risk assessment of the potential hazards and practicable risk controls. If an employee considers they are being bullied they will be more likely to report it if they know there is a reporting process in place and that it will be followed as soon as a report is received. 

Reporting can be encouraged by:

  • Making it clear that victimisation of those who make reports will not be tolerated;
  • Ensuring consistent, effective and timely responses to reports; and
  • Being transparent about dealing with bullying in the workplace by regularly providing information on the number of reports made, how they were resolved and what actions were taken.

It is important for those who experience or witness bullying in the workplace to know who they can talk to in the workplace, that a report will be taken seriously and confidentiality will be maintained. Implementing effective response procedures will help respond to reports of bullying in a consistent and reasonable way. They should be used each time a report of bullying is made and be flexible enough to fit the different circumstances of each report. Procedures should be designed to suit the size and structure of the organisation. A procedure should:

  • Be in plain English and if necessary available in other languages;
  • Outline how issues will be dealt with when a report of bullying in the workplace is made or received including broad principles to ensure the process is objective, fair and transparent;
  • Clearly state the roles of individuals such as managers and supervisors; and
  • Identify external avenues available to workers where allegations of bullying in the workplace have been unable to be resolved internally.

A procedure must be developed in consultation with workers and SHRs (if any). 

To address under-reporting and encourage future reporting of bullying in the workplace, employers may consider developing and implementing a Statement of Intent which states management’s commitment to addressing risk factors for bullying in the workplace and encourages reporting of such behaviours, incidents or injuries. Conducting an anonymous employee survey which includes specific questions about the presence of bullying in the workplace and employees’ current health effects may also assist your workplace in obtaining an accurate assessment on whether employees are likely to be exposed to bullying in the workplace.

What is WorkSafe's role?

What is WorkSafe's role in relation bullying in the workplace?

WorkSafe Inspectors work within the Occupational Health and Safety Act (1984).  It is WorkSafe’s role to ensure that the employer and the employee meet their obligations under the Act. It is not the role of an Inspector to become involved in the specifics of the situation or to mediate between the person who feels upset and the person accused of the inappropriate behaviour. 

WorkSafe exercises discretion in deciding whether incidents, cases of ill health, or complaints should be investigated. Depending on the outcome of the investigation and the circumstances the Inspector can take one or more of the following actions:

  • No action;
  • Provide information; and/or
  • Issue improvement notice(s).

Action taken by WorkSafe are targeted at preventing and managing bullying in the workplace and may not directly impact on an individual’s specific situation i.e. it may not repair the working relationships to a friendly state.

WorkSafe does not have the authority to enforce disciplinary actions on the person/s accused of bullying in the workplace, reinstate employees to their position if they were terminated or request an apology or some form of compensation on behalf of someone. 

Which other agencies address unfair, unreasonable and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace?

There are many agencies that address unfair, unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour at work. Find the most appropriate organisation

How do I make a workplace bullying enquiry to WorkSafe?

Before lodging an Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) enquiry with WorkSafe you should first try to resolve the bullying through the workplace’s informal or formal process. This is because the employer should be given an opportunity to investigate hazards at the workplace.  Table 3 displays a checklist that may be helpful for you to complete before considering lodging a complaint to WorkSafe.

Table 3 Quick checklist
Activity Completed?
1. Are there any workplace policies or steps to follow to report behaviour?

Y ☐  N ☐

2. Have you talked to anyone about what is happening to you and what you are feeling about it? Y ☐  N ☐
3. Have you talked to a human resources officer, safety and health representative (SHR) or union representative about the situation? Y ☐  N ☐
4. Have you told the other person how you feel about their behaviour and asked that it stop? Y ☐  N ☐
5. Have you written down what happened, including date, time, persons involved, witnesses and what was said and done, so that you are able to fully explain the sort of inappropriate behaviours you are experiencing should you be asked about them? Y ☐  N ☐
6. Have you reported it to your employer through their workplace procedure? Y ☐  N ☐
7. Has your employer done something about it and told you? Y ☐  N ☐
8. Have you used a support services that may be available through your employer (i.e. Employee Assistance Provider)? Y ☐  N ☐

 

If the workplace bullying matter remains unresolved or you feel that you could not report the workplace bullying to anyone in the workplace an OSH enquiry may be lodged with WorkSafe.

If you have completed the actions outlined in the table 3 above (where possible) and would like to make a complaint to WorkSafe about bullying in the workplace you may contact WorkSafe’s Customer Help Centre on 1300 307 877 or email wscallcentre@dmirs.wa.gov.au.  You can also report the hazard online through WorkSafe’s web page. 

Once you have reported the hazard to WorkSafe, you will be sent an Enquiry Form which requires completion and being returned to WorkSafe. Please note this Enquiry form is specifically for bullying / conflict type hazards. Once WorkSafe have received this completed Enquiry Form, the process can commence. 

Can WorkSafe investigate bullying from an anonymous OSH enquiry?

It is only possible to remain anonymous when initially lodging a complaint or OSH enquiry about bullying. At this point in time you may be directed to relevant information about this topic in relation to the issue you have raised.  However, it is not possible to maintain the enquirer’s anonymity if the matter is to be investigated at the workplace. This is because, in order for the Inspector to gain a better understanding of the situation, the Inspector has to discuss the matter with the person who submitted the OSH enquiry before carrying out an inspection of the workplace and usually, to form an opinion of whether a breach of the law has occurred, the inspector has to investigate whether a hazard exists at a workplace and gain an understanding of how the workplace has responded and the actions they have taken to prevent bullying in the workplace.  It is therefore important that contact details are provided to WorkSafe and that you understand that anonymity cannot be guaranteed should you wish your enquiry to be investigated. Additionally, the employer may assume an OSH enquiry was made or voluntarily offer information about certain cases if they have been recently trying to manage the situation or made aware of it. 

What is the role of a WorkSafe Inspector when investigating a bullying in the workplace OSH enquiry? 

The Inspector will first contact the person who has lodged the OSH enquiry and obtain further details about the negative behaviour in the workplace.  The Inspector may ask for a brief written overview of bullying incidents, including place, date, time, persons and what was said or done.  The Inspector will discuss the most appropriate approach. 

If the person who lodged the OSH enquiry agrees to be identified, the Inspector will contact the employer and discuss the raised bullying concerns at the workplace, what action has been taken to address the concerns and examine what safe systems of work are in place to prevent and manage bullying, conflict and negative workplace behaviours in the workplace.  If applicable the Inspector can also arrange meetings with the person allegedly conducting the negative behaviours, witnesses and other relevant persons. 

It is the Inspector’s role to establish if the employer and the employee meet their obligations under the Act.  It is not the role of an Inspector to become involved in the specifics of bullying in the workplace or to mediate between the parties involved.

Depending on the outcome of the investigation and the circumstances the Inspector can take one or more of the following actions:

  • Take no action;
  • Provide information on preventing and managing bullying, conflict and negative behaviours in the workplace; and/or
  • Issue improvement notice(s). For instance, under certain circumstances the employer could be directed to ensure that adequate systems are in place to prevent or stop bullying, conflict and negative workplace behaviours, or to investigate the hazards reported by an employee. 

Refer to Toolkits and information resources for further information on bullying.

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