What is workplace bullying and harassment?

Workplace bullying and harassment is generally accepted to be repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to their health and safety.  Workplace bullying and harassment can be verbal, physical or psychological abuse.  It may be direct or indirect and includes behaviour that humiliates, intimidates or offends an employee at their workplace.

Workplace bullying  and harassment can occur in any type of workplace and to any type of employee.

The following are examples of direct workplace bullying/harassment:

  • threatening to harm someone;
  • acts of violence;
  • offensive or abusive language;
  • public humiliation.

The following are examples of indirect workplace bullying/harassment:

  • deliberately excluding or isolating an employee from workplace activities;
  • spreading malicious rumours about another employee;
  • deliberately denying access to information or other resources;
  • withholding access to information or other resources required by an employee to enable them to perform effectively at work.

Although workplace bullying and harassment are generally accepted to be repeated behaviour, single or isolated incidents may be the first step in, or escalate to, workplace bullying/harassment and therefore are a risk to workplace health and safety. Ensure your business has an operational Workplace Health and Safety Policy in place.

Workplace bullying may also be discrimination if it occurs because of your race, sex, age, disability, religion, pregnancy, sexual orientation or certain other reasons.

What is not workplace bullying and harassment?

Your employer and its management team have a legal right to direct you in relation to the performance of your duties at work, monitor your performance, identify performance problems and give feedback to you in relation to your performance.  This is not workplace bullying.

The following examples do not constitute workplace bullying/harassment:

  • setting performance goals and deadlines;
  • rostering and allocating work;
  • performance management of an employee or notifying an employee of unsatisfactory performance;
  • informing an employee about inappropriate behaviour;
  • restructuring or organisational changes.

What can I do about it?

If you are being bullied then it is important that you are aware that you have the right to work in a safe workplace and there are things you can do if you are being bullied.

If you are being bullied then you could:

  • approach the person directly who is bullying you;
  • approach your manager, employer grievance officer or someone else in your workplace responsible for handling workplace bullying complaints;
  • seek advice from, or report an incident to, your workplace health and safety authority;
  • seek advice from, or report an incident to, the Australian Human Rights Commission if anti-discrimination laws are relevant;
  • if you are a member of a union, seek advice from your union rep.

If you witness someone being bullied then you have a moral responsibility to help them, either by telling them what they can do about it or intervening to stop the workplace bullying.

If you are an employer then you must maintain a workplace free from workplace bullying and harassment as workplace health and safety legislation requires every employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. Workplace bullying is a psychological hazard and the risks associated with it need to be managed by employers like any other hazard at the workplace.

Employers must take active measures to prevent workplace bullying and harassment from occurring in the workplace and must take reasonable steps to stop it, whenever it occurs.  This means that each employer must have systems in place to manage workplace bullying.  Workplace bullying is best dealt with immediately in order to prevent it from becoming a risk to health and safety.


The LegalVision team can help both employers and employees in matters relating to bullying and harassment. Contact LegalVision on 1300 544 755 for quality legal advice on how to manage these stressful employment situations.

Lachlan McKnight
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