How to deal with workplace bullying

Posted October 13, 2011, by Josie Chun

When you think of bullies, you may think of the beefy kid at school pushing and shoving the runt of the class. But bullies are no longer consigned to the school playground. They can be found in the workplace lurking around office cubicles, behind counters and desks or loitering around the water cooler – and more than your lunch money could be at stake.

Workplace bullying is not always overt; it can be subtle but insidious. It is a serious issue that not only causes a risk to the health and safety of the victim, but can also affect the whole business. And occasionally, as in the tragic case of 19-year-old Brodie Panlock who committed suicide as a response to workplace bullying, the consequences can be dire.

Bullying is more common than many people realise, with WorkSafe’s annual research consistently showing that 14 per cent of Victorian workers had experienced bullying.

No bullies in our house

While you may be extremely lucky to have a relaxed workplace, remember that not everyone shares the same sense of humour. People have different sensitivities and sometimes what is intended as playful joking can come across like a personal attack. Employees can be reluctant to tell employers how they feel for fear of causing trouble or losing their job. As an employer you may be unaware that bullying is taking place in your office, but it is your duty to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of your workers.

It is also the responsibility of co-workers to speak up if they witness bullying in the workplace. Workers have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, as well as the health and safety of others in the workplace. They also have a duty to cooperate with actions their employer takes to comply with OHS laws.

What is bullying?

Bullying can come in many forms but can generally be defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. Whether intended or not, bullying is an OHS hazard.

Bullying behaviour can be direct and can run the gamut from verbal abuse and putting someone down to spreading rumours or innuendo about someone, or interfering with someone’s personal property or work equipment.

It can also be indirect and includes behaviours such as unjustified criticism or complaints, deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities, deliberately denying access to information or other resources, withholding information that is vital for effective work performance, setting tasks that are unreasonably above or below a worker’s ability, deliberately changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to inconvenience a particular worker or workers, setting timelines that are very difficult to achieve, and excessive scrutiny at work.

Bullying does not, however, include things like constructive feedback, downsizing or deciding not to select a worker for promotion.

The effects of bullying

Bullying has profound effects on both individuals and organisations, leading to loss of productivity, high staff turnover, increased absenteeism, drops in employee performance, low morale and possible legal costs. These are not things that businesses can afford to ignore, either from a professional or ethical standpoint.  

Bullied individuals can be physically or psychologically damaged and are more likely to make mistakes that lead to injuries. They can also experience increased muscular tension and are more likely to develop occupational overuse syndromes and low back pain.

Workplace policy

Workplaces need to develop and implement a policy on bullying prevention that sets out standards of behaviour and clearly identifies inappropriate behaviour that will not be tolerated.

Procedures should outline how reports of bullying will be dealt with and ensure that the process is objective, fair and transparent, as well as confidential.

The employer’s response should be guided by the following principles:

  • Treat all matters seriously
  • Act promptly
  • Don’t victimise anyone who raises an issue of bullying
  • Once a complaint has been made, all involved parties should be advised of available support and treated with sensitivity, respect and courtesy
  • Act with impartiality towards all parties, avoiding any personal or professional bias
  • Communicate with all parties about the process (how long it will take and what will happen), providing clear reasons for any actions taken
  • Consult with health and safety representatives
  • Treat all complaints with confidentiality, revealing details only to those directly involved
  • Document the process, recording all meetings and interviews with details of who was present and agreed outcomes

How to deal with workplace bullying

Sometimes a clear and polite request to stop the behaviour, which can be made by the person affected, their supervisor or manager, or another appropriate person, is all that is required to stop the bullying behaviour. The supervisor or manager should document the request and its outcome.

In other cases, when the direct approach does not resolve the issue, mediation or discussion with a third party may be required. A neutral and independent person can assist resolution through discussion of the issues when all concerned parties agree to this approach.

When a serious allegation has been made, a formal investigation should be conducted to determine if the report of bullying is valid. At the end of an investigation, recommendations should be made about the measures that should be undertaken to resolve the matter, with the outcome communicated to the involved parties in a fair and unbiased way.

Strategies for resolution

There are a number of strategies that managers and employers can implement to put an end to bullying behaviour in the workplace:

  • Gain a commitment from the perpetrator to cease the behaviour (direct approach)
  • Move the perpetrator away from the affected person
  • Require an apology
  • Implement disciplinary action
  • Mediation (where both parties agree to mediation and to the mediator)
  • Provide coaching, counselling support and/or mentoring to the affected person
  • Provide a structured program to reintegrate the person into the workplace
  • Review workplace policy with all workers and managers
  • Run an awareness update
  • Provide workgroup and organisation-wide training
Josie Chun

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