Why worry about bullying?

Bullying typically results in low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, decreased emotional wellbeing, and feelings of helplessness.  Severe or long-term bullying may result in substance abuse, depression, suicide, post-dramatic stress disorder and so on.

Bullying can also be costly for employers if it starts affecting their employees’ ability to enjoy work.  Employees’ performance and productivity will be reduced, absenteeism may increase, and eventually employees may resign. 

Where an employer fails to respond appropriately to complaints of bullying, the employer may also face personal grievances from the targets of bullying.

What is bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards one or more workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.  Bullying can happen between employer and employee, or between employees.  It can also involve one perpetrator and one target, or can involve several people or groups of people.  Bullying may occur inside and outside of work hours; and can be direct and personal or indirect and past related. 

Examples of direct bullying include physical assaults, verbal threats, and insults, ridiculing, humiliation, public criticism, obscene or offensive language or gestures, intimidation, intruding on privacy, unwanted sexual approaches, offers of physical contact, inaccurate accusations, tampering with personal effects and so on.

Indirect and past related bullying is often more subtle and harder to identify.  Examples include: giving unrealistic tasks or overloading employees, giving an employee unpleasant jobs, belittling their ability, withholding or concealing information, undervaluing the target’s contribution, constant criticism, demotion, unreasonable monitoring, refusing reasonable leave, isolating or excluding a person, making harmful threats about job security, not getting enough support, denying the person opportunities, and so on.

The term bullying does not refer to one off incidents, and does not include:

  • A difference of opinion;
  • Personality clash;
  • Constructive feedback;
  • Legitimate advice;
  • Reasonable instructions;
  • Disciplinary action which is legitimate; and
  • A single incident of unreasonable behaviour.

What can you do if you are experiencing bullying?

All persons carrying on a business or undertaking (PCBUs) are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of their employees.  Because bullying can affect the health and safety of workers they also have an obligation to make sure bullying is taken seriously and eradicated.

The first thing you need to do is keep a record, noting the time, date and place of any incidents.   You need to detail what happened, who was present, what was said, and anything else which may be useful.  Include comments about how you felt as a result of the bullying.

If you feel comfortable to do so, you can raise your concerns directly with the bully.  If you do not think that would be conducive, or you are too intimidated to raise the matter yourself, you should raise the matter with your employer.  A good starting point is to review your workplace policy on bullying.

Once you have raised a formal complaint about bullying, the employer will have an obligation to investigate

What happens when you submit a report of complaint?

It is important to note that if you raise a formal complaint, the allegation will be put to the alleged bully, to respond to.  In the meantime you should be kept free from harm.  This may require that the alleged bully be placed on suspension, or that you work different shifts or in different locations, or that you take garden leave.

Sometimes, an independent outside person may be asked to conduct the investigation, but often the boss or another neutral employee will do the investigation.  You may be required to submit a written response and/or be interviewed by the investigator.  The investigator will compile a report which will go to all concerned parties.  During the investigation it is important that all parties concerned are advised to keep the matter confidential until an outcome is determined.  You should keep a record of all conversations, interviews and exchanges of emails, text messages, meetings and so on, so that you have a complete record in the event that things do not go as expected or desired. 

Once the investigation is complete the employer will make a decision as to whether the allegations are substantiated, and you will be notified.  If the allegations are proven to be correct, the employer will need to consider what steps need to be taken to discipline the bully, as well as what steps need to be taken to keep employees safe from harm.

Throughout this process you are entitled to have a support person (like a co-worker, friend, or family member); or a representative (like a union delegate, or lawyer).

What if your boss is the bully?

In such a situation you still have an obligation to raise your complaint with the boss.  If the response is inadequate or unfair your next step would be to seek assistance from an outside party.  Mediation can be helpful to assist parties to resolve any bullying especially if the matter is raised early on. 

What if you witness bullying?

Bystanders can play an important role in supporting the target of bullying.  The target of bullying may not feel confident to raise the allegation but if you witness bullying you should report it or encourage the target to report it him or herself.