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What to do if a staff member is being bullied?

Table of Contents

Take Responsibility

If you think one of your employees is being bullied alarm bells should be ringing.  As an employer you have a responsibility to protect your employees from bullying under workplace health and safety laws and/or anti-discrimination laws by having a Workplace Health and Safety Policy in place. Workplace bullying can also lead to legal action for negligence and breach of contract against employers. From 1 January 2014, amendments to the Fair Work Act will commence and workers will be able to make workplace bullying complaints under the Fair Work Act.

Understand what bullying is

It is important to understand the legal definition of bullying.  From 1 January 2014, a worker will be “bullied at work” if an individual or group repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards that worker and that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. So if a person is clearly becoming upset by another person’s behaviour at work, then this should put you on alert.  Is the behaviour they are being subjected to just an aspect of the job or is it unreasonable?  For example, it might be reasonable to tell someone to correct their mistakes, but it is not reasonable to yell at them in front of everyone about it.

Workplace bullying can take a number of forms and they are not always as obvious as you might think. Remember that “mind games” rather than overt harassment are frequently cited as the most common type of workplace bullying.  If workers or managers are behaving toward another member of staff in a way that person clearly does not like and this behaviour has no business justification (such as performance management) then there is a good chance this is bullying.

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Understand why the bullying is going on

Ask yourself, is there something about the workplace that is creating bullying?  For example, is the workplace overly-competitive, too fragmented or do staff actually need re-training?  Am I fostering a healthy and productive workplace culture?  Is this behaviour happening because of certain stress factors or at certain shift times? Also, make sure your actions don’t further isolate the victim, instead investigate why it is happening, try to get to the bottom of it and resolve it.

Talk to all parties involved

You must speak to all parties involved so you get all sides of the story and a complete picture.  You need to make it clear there is a zero-tolerance approach to bullying in your workplace and that workplace bullying can take many forms.

Don’t over-react

Talk to all parties involved and try to resolve any problems.  If you feel a disciplinary response is warranted, make sure it is proportionate to the bullying behaviour.   You don’t want to get stuck with an unfair dismissal claim by moving too quickly to dismiss someone who is being a bully.  A problem-solving approach is preferable if you feel all parties can work through it.

Be empathetic

You need to apply your common sense and emotional intelligence to understand what bullying is and how it might impact someone.  Workers are not just machines, but complex people with a range of emotions and sensitivities.

Lead by example

Be consistent and indicate to all staff your workplace values certain workplace behaviours, such as respect and honesty, and that workplace behaviours like ‘back-stabbing’ or sabotage are unacceptable and bad for business.  Lead by example through your own leadership style.

Run anti-bullying workshops/meetings

This makes it clear to everyone what bullying involves, that it will not be tolerated and can teach skills to redress bullying behaviour.

Consider mediation/conciliation

Bringing a third-party to help resolve these disputes may be helpful if you think the working relationship between the parties can still be salvaged or if you work in a small business and there is no one who can independently investigate.

Seek advice

Bullying is a complex matter and can result in serious legal, reputational and financial ramifications for a business.  If the situation is becoming serious you should seek legal advice.

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Lachlan McKnight

Lachlan McKnight


Lachlan is the CEO of LegalVision. He co-founded LegalVision in 2012 with the goal of providing high quality, cost effective legal services at scale to both SMEs and large corporates.

Qualifications: Lachlan has an MBA from INSEAD and is admitted to the Supreme Court of England and Wales and the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

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About LegalVision

LegalVision is an innovative commercial law firm that provides businesses with affordable, unlimited and ongoing legal assistance through our membership. We operate in Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

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