What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying can be defined as repeated unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour directed towards a worker, or a group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.
A workplace situation can be identified as bullying if a worker or workers are repeatedly:
This can be in front of co-workers, visitors or customers.
In some instances, this can involve verbal abuse and physical violence. In others, bullying can involve subtle intimidation (e.g. inappropriate comments about personal appearance, constant criticisms, isolation of workers from others and unrealistic, embarrassing or degrading work demands).
Workplace bullying can also be carried out via letters, email and telephone text messages.
What isn’t workplace bullying?
An isolated incident of inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a one-off incident, it is not considered to be bullying. However, since an employer has a general duty to provide workers with a safe workplace and systems of work, single incidents of this type should not be ignored.
It is important to differentiate between a person’s legitimate authority at work and bullying. All employers have a legal right to direct and control how work is done, and managers have a responsibility to monitor workflow and give feedback on performance.
If a worker has obvious performance problems, these should be identified and dealt with in a constructive way that does not involve personal insults or derogatory remarks. In situations where a worker is dissatisfied with management practices, the problem should also be raised in a manner that does not involve personal abuse.
What can be done about bullying?
Every situation is different but bullying is not acceptable at any workplace and can be stopped. If you are bullied, you can take action informally or follow a more formal approach.
This is recommended as a first approach in dealing with most bullying cases.
- Check for policies and procedures that deal with the prevention of workplace bullying. This could be a specific workplace anti-bullying policy or procedure, a grievance procedure or an issue resolution procedure.
- Seek advice, for instance from the contact officer or grievance officer, safety and health representative, safety and health officer, human resources officer or union official.
- Keep a detailed record of what happened, including place, date, time, persons, and what was said or done, and ensure records are accurate.
- Consider approaching the bully and make it clear to the bully that you found the behaviour offensive, intimidating of harassing and that you would like it to stop.
- Sometimes people are not aware of how their behaviour can be perceived by others. It is important to approach the person and let them know how you feel. You could also ask someone else (e.g. the grievance officer or human resources officer) to approach the bully on your behalf or to mediate or facilitate a face-to-face discussion and find a solution that is acceptable for anyone involved.
- Use a counselling service if available through your workplace. This may help you to develop ways of dealing with a bully or the effects of bullying.
A more formal approach may be required:
- if the informal procedures are not successful
- for 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.
A number of resources are available to workplaces and individuals to assist with this process.
A report may be lodged with Resources Safety even if you have already informed your employer about the alleged bullying. To find out more about how to lodge a report, see Reporting alleged bullying.
Duties of the employer and worker
The employer has a duty of care to, so far as is practicable, ensure that adequate systems are in place to prevent or stop the bullying behaviour.
To address workplace bullying, or the potential for bullying, employers should:
- consult with workers 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 workplace bullying 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
- monitor indicators of workplace bullying, including absence from work (e.g. 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 worker(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 workplace bullying issues.
The WA Ombudsman has procedural fairness guidelines that provide useful guidance on what it means to apply the rules of procedural fairness while conducting an administrative investigation.
Workers 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 worker 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.
Workers should follow the employer’s safety instructions, cooperate with their employer on work-related safety and health matters,
If an internal workplace bullying complaint has been lodged within a workplace, the complainant is protected by qualified privilege provided:
- the complaint is not malicious
- the facts presented in the complaint are true
- the complaint is made in accordance with workplace procedures
- it is not discussed with people who are not directly involved in the resolution of the complaint.
Qualified privilege is a concept that comes from common law. It protects an individual from a possible defamation charge under certain circumstances (i.e. where a person makes a statement or receives information from another as part of carrying out public or private duties).
Find out more about the concept of duty of care in Minerals safety legislation.
Other legislation applicable to behaviour in the workplace
The Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994 contains general duties and responsibilities placed upon people to ensure their own safety at work, and that of others who are at the workplace or who might be injured by the work. These duties extend to the prevention of workplace violence and aggression.
All incidents involving violence or aggression should be reported to the employer, who should take appropriate action to prevent further occurrences. Dealing with workplace bullying may involve laws other than the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994, and some of these are described below.
The person affected may need to seek legal advice about how best to proceed.
Worksafe has produced an information sheet to assist those who feel they have been treated unfairly, inappropriately and/or unreasonably in the workplace
Equal Opportunity Act 1984
A worker may lodge a complaint with the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in accordance with the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 when bullying involves direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of:
- marital status
- religious or political conviction
- gender history
- sexual orientation
- family responsibility or family status
- sexual or racial harassment
- spent conviction.
Find out more about lodging a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission.
Industrial Relations Act 1979
A worker may be entitled to lodge a claim under the unfair dismissal provisions in the Industrial Relations Act 1979, should they consider they have been:
- dismissed as a result of making a complaint in relation to bullying
- forced to resign due to the effects of bullying.
Further information is available at Labour Relations, Department of Commerce.
The Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 2013
Any incidences of physical or sexual assault or the threat of physical harm of any form is covered under The Criminal Code and should be reported to the Western Australian Police.
Contact the Western Australian Police or, if a crime is happening or someone is in immediate danger, contact emergency services by telephoning 000.
Fair Work Act 2009
The Fair Work Commission, a national body, has jurisdiction to hear individual bullying complaints if a worker reasonably believes that he or she is being bullied at work. A worker may apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop bullying at work from continuing in accordance with the Fair Work Act 2009, which is Commonwealth legislation.
Visit the Fair Work Commission for more information.