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What is Workplace Bullying, Exactly?


What is workplace bullying, exactly?

If you believe the statistics, workplace bullying in Australia is on the rise. According to a 2018 Safe Work Australia report, 37% of people report having been sworn or yelled at while trying to do their job. The same report states that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men place bullying or harassment at the basis of their mental health disorder. A University of Wollongong 2016 study strongly suggests half of working Australians will experience bullying at some time in their careers. The economic cost is estimated to be between $6 billion and $36 billion a year. All of this is unprecedented. Clearly there is something going on. But what is it?

The statistics tell a story about bullying claims. But are they all valid? Is it bullying or is it a lack of mental toughness that is behind the spike in bullying and harassment claims?

So, what is bullying?

The Fair Work Act Australia defines bullying as Unreasonable behaviour that includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening another person or group of people to the extent it causes a risk to health and safety in the workplace. Whether a behaviour is unreasonable can depend on whether a reasonable person might see the behaviour as unreasonable in the circumstances. Pretty broad huh?

Another relied-on definition, this time from Heads Up, the Beyond Blue initiative, is: Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety. The emphasis here is on 'repeated', suggesting that a single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered bullying. Although, it’s reasonable to assume when dealing with human behaviour that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and a single incident could be a sign of something more sinister, so best to keep an eye on it.

What is bullying behaviour?

Bullying can take lots of different forms, from verbal or physical abuse through to online harassment. In some cases, workplace bullying extends beyond the working environment - for example, through emails, texts or social media posts sent outside work hours.

But if you’re seeing or hearing about any of this in your team, then you may have a problem:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments (including belittling, demeaning or patronising someone, especially in front of others)

  • unjustified or unreasonable criticism or complaints

  • singling someone out and treating them differently from others

  • withholding information, supervision, consultation, training or resources deliberately to prevent someone doing their job to the level expected

  • setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines

  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumors

  • changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately inconvenience someone

  • setting tasks that are unreasonably below or above someone's skill level

  • humiliating, swearing at, shouting at, or threatening someone

  • excluding someone from taking part in activities that relate to their work

  • someone taking credit for or plagiarising someone else’s work and refusing to acknowledge the contribution

  • initiation or hazing – where someone is pressured to do humiliating or inappropriate things

  • teasing or playing practical jokes that are designed to humiliate or intimidate

  • refusing annual leave, sick leave, and especially compassionate leave without reasonable grounds

When does bullying become assault?

Pushing, shoving, tripping and grabbing are considered assault and should be taken very seriously. Attacks or threats with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any object that can be used as a weapon should also be reported.  

What does a bully look like?

The bully in your team could be the CEO or a subordinate. While it is more common that bullying occurs when there is an imbalance of power (no prizes for guessing who the bully is likely to be in these situations), it is not always the case. You could be on the receiving end of bullying behaviour from a peer or subordinate.

A bully looks like anyone else – and can be male or female, fat or thin, short or tall, blonde or dark-haried. The smallest, quietest, sweetest looking woman in your office could be the bully. The largest, most aggressive looking man with tatts may be the victim.

We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of relying on schemas and stereotyping to decide who is a bully or not. It’s not the way they look, it’s their behaviour. If they are exhibiting bullying behaviour, then they are a bully. Simple as that.

What isn’t bullying?

Asking and expecting someone to do the job they were employed to do is not bullying. A manager can make decisions about poor performance, take disciplinary action, and direct and control the way work is carried out. Reasonable management action that’s carried out in a reasonable way is not bullying.

But there’s a way to do this that is respectful and professional. And that’s a skill to be learned.

How do I make my workplace a bully-free zone?

  1. Set the tone right up front when you hire someone – on that first day of Induction – make it clear you have zero tolerance for bullying and explain the processes you have in place to deal with inappropriate behaviour

  2. Walk the ‘zero tolerance’ talk – in 90% of bullying incidents, there are bystanders who either don’t know what to do or are too afraid to speak up for fear of retribution. Demonstrate that you’re unwilling to tolerate any form of bullying, harassment, or discrimination by rooting it out and dealing with it appropriately. Word gets around and people will respect you for it and have confidence to follow your lead.

  3. Create a workplace that has a positive vibe about it – people feel good coming to work, they’re supportive of each other and everyone feels encouraged and valued

  4. Be reasonable about what you expect people to get done in a day. Just because you’re happy to put in a 10-hour day, doesn’t give you the right to demand it of others. Particularly when they don’t get a share of the profits or any performance bonus! Quite often, bullying behaviour is someone else just pushing your expectations further down the line.

  5. Be clear in your communications to people – say what you mean and mean what you say – if people know what is being asked/expected of them, they are more likely to deliver the outcome you want and less likely to feel they are being set up to fail.

  6. Be supportive of people’s lives outside the office – we all need understanding and support from time to time

Where do I go if I need help with a situation at work?

If you’re an employee and you are being either bullied or harassed or know that someone else is, you can:

  • Talk to your Supervisor or Manager

  • Talk to someone in the Human Resources Department

  • Chat to your workplace health and safety representative

  • Your Union representative

  • Go to the Fair Work Commission

If you are an employer:

  • Remember, action carried out by a manager in a reasonable way isn't bullying. You can find the Fair Work Act’s Managing underperformance best practice guide for information about how to take reasonable management action to make sure employees are doing their job properly

  • The Fair Work Commission offers free downloads of resource material to help you understand more – check out the Anti-bullying guide and Anti-bullying Benchbook   

  • Contact us here at HRM Resolutions to chat about how we can help you