Bullying and harassment at work

What is bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment are totally unacceptable. Bullying can occur in a variety of situations, whether by particular supervisors, work groups or individuals in the workplace.

It can be difficult to define workplace bullying, because it can be quite different in different workplaces. However, some examples of bullying include:

  • constant criticism (although this does not include genuine performance management or training conducted by an employer);
  • being laughed at and taunted, or the subject of insults, sarcasm, yelling or abusive language;
  • insults because of your appearance, race, religion, or sexuality;
  • being the target of pranks or exclusion/isolation from activities or groups;
  • physical abuse – people pushing, poking, shoving, hitting or threatening to hurt you; and
  • exposure to offensive messages or pictures in the workplace or by email, or voice mail.

Bullying is usually a sustained course of conduct, although it can sometimes include isolated incidents such as an argument, or violence.

Safe Work Australia has developed a draft Code of Practice on Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying which should be finalised some time in 2013.

Harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination, and it includes physical or verbal discrimination or harassment based on your race, age, sex, disability, or other attribute covered by discrimination law. It includes sexual harassment. For more detail see Hot Topics 75: Discrimination.

Employers’ Responsibilities

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure your health, safety and welfare at work, which includes preventing stress or psychological harm which can result from bullying.

Employers of children aged under 15 years also have special responsibilities under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (NSW). Section 222 of that Act provides that it is an offence to allow a child aged less than fifteen years to take part in employment that puts the child’s well-being at risk.

What can you do?

If you feel the bullying or intimidation is only minor, you should make it clear to the other person that their behaviour is unacceptable to you and they should stop. If it is serious or continues after you have raised it you should consider the following:

  • keep an 'incident diary';
  • talk to your family or friends for support and help;
  • tell your supervisor. It is their job to stop any bullying in the workplace. If your supervisor is part of the problem talk to someone higher up;
  • discuss your problem with your workplace safety representative;
  • contact your Human Resources staff for support and advice; and
  • seek advice from WorkCover, the Anti-Discrimination Board, the Australian Human Rights Commission, or your local community legal centre.

What if nothing is done?

Employers, managers and employees who fail to prevent or report workplace bullying and harassment may face any of the following consequences:

  • disciplinary action by the employer;
  • prosecution under occupational health and safety laws;
  • being sued for personal injury;
  • causing the employer’s workers’ compensation costs to increase;
  • being involved in a discrimination complaint;
  • criminal charges of assault; and
  • proceedings under child protection laws.