Bullying: A guide for ASU members

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What is bullying?

Many people contact the ASU for support because of bullying at work. All industries in Australia are at risk of bullying. Bullying in the Fair Work Act has three prerequisites. The prerequisites are:

  1. It must be while a worker is at work
  2. The behaviour is repeated and unreasonable
  3. The behaviour creates a risk to health and safety

It’s easy to confuse poor organisational management and management action with bullying (or vice versa). That’s why it’s helpful to know what these terms mean and where you can go for more information.

Bullying is a health and safety issue

The effects of bullying on an employee’s mental and physical health can be devastating. The Fair Work Act 2009 explicitly defines bullying as a risk to health and safety, so management must take it seriously as an OHS issue.

When someone is bullied, they can suffer a lot of harm, including:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation
  • Deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
  • Difficulty establishing trusting, reciprocal friendships and relationships
  • Distress, anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disturbance
  • Depression
  • Physical illness
  • Poor general health
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide plans, and suicide attempts
  • Self-destructive behaviour, including self-harm
  • Substance abuse

Identifying bullying

Knowing how to identify bullying is important so you know what to do if you see it or experience it.

Many forms of workplace bullying exist, including, but not limited to, repeated:

  • unreasonable demands, unnecessary pressures and impossible deadlines targeted at an employee or group of employees
  • verbal abuse, including yelling, berating, and using frightening or offensive language
  • explicit or implied threats of termination or demotion
  • humiliation through gestures, sarcasm, racial remarks, etc. in front of customers, clients, management, colleagues, or others
  • purposeful isolation or exclusion
  • undermining a person’s work performance
  • unfair allocation of tasks and or working hours
  • abusive of offensive emails, social media activity, or other correspondence

These actions can be a sign of bullying however it’s important not to confuse them with reasonable management action or poor organisational management.

Here are some examples of reasonable management action and poor organisational management and when that might turn into bullying (remember, bullying must be unreasonable and repeated behaviour that poses a health and safety risk):

When trying to determine if an action is reasonable management action or poor organisational management, consider if the action was fair and impacted everyone equally. Having poor organisational management is still a psychosocial safety hazard that can affect health and safety, but it’s not bullying and should be handled differently. Whether you are experiencing management action, poor organisational management or bullying, ASU members should contact the ASU for advice.

Don’t forget, bullying must be repeated unreasonable behaviour. A bullying case is likely to have multiple instances of different unreasonable behaviour. We always tell our members to keep a bullying diary so they can document each instance of bullying. Making a complaint or grievance is a lot easier with this.

Use this bullying incident log to track bullying in the workplace.

Your employer’s duty to eliminate bullying

Your employer is responsible for ensuring there is no bullying in the workplace. Your employer must do this – it’s the law.

Section 21 of the OHS Act states employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This means they must eliminate or reduce any risks to your health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Health includes psychological health as well. This is explicitly stated in the definitions (section 5) of the OHS Act.

The entire purpose of occupational health and safety protection is to prevent workers being exposed to risks. This means that employers should establish plans to prevent bullying from occurring in the first place.

However, if bullying does occur, the employer must deal with the issue appropriately and effectively – they must not allow or enable bullying to occur. In dealing with the issue of bullying, the first priority is to eliminate (stop) the bullying as far as reasonably practicable. The employer must also take all reasonably practicable measures or steps necessary to prevent bullying in the workplace.

Your employer should consult with workers and your Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) about bullying. The Hierarchy of Controls (we explain what the hierarchy of controls is a little further down) should be followed if bullying is identified as an issue so that the risk is eliminated. If it’s not possible to eliminate the risk, they should minimise the risk, as far as is reasonably practicable.

How workers can win: a bullying free workplace

Making sure your employer follows their OHS duties isn’t easy – a lot of employers get away with it every day. That’s why organising your workplace is important for a bullying free workplace.

There are plenty of things an employer can do to create a safe, bullying free workplace.

1. Identify how much of a problem bullying is

Identifying how much of a problem bullying is in your workplace is the first step to ensuring a safe, bully free workplace. You should speak to your co-workers and see if they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying. Sometimes, a colleague who trusts you will disclose they are being bullied. You can also look at your organisation’s policies and procedures and see if there is a workplace bullying and harassment policy and if the policy is sound. There may not currently be any bullying in the workplace, but unless there are policies to address this, the risk is still there.

Some steps you can take are to:

  • Check in with your colleagues to see if they’ve witnessed or experienced bullying
  • Be on the lookout for colleagues whose mood or behaviour has changed recently
  • Check in with your colleagues to see if they feel safe in the workplace
  • Encourage everyone to keep a diary of any incidents of bullying in the workplace, and evidence of that bullying – this will come in handy when negotiating with management or writing a grievance.

Use this Bullying Risk Assessment Checklist to see if there are adequate bullying controls in your workplace.
Use this bullying incident log to track bullying in the workplace.

2. Consider if there are other workplace factors that are contributing to the occurrence of bullying

Workplace bullying often occurs alongside other workplace factors and psychosocial hazards. See if you can identify any other factors in your workplace:

  • Work stressors: bullying can occur in workplaces with high work stressors. Factors like limited job control, role conflict and ambiguity, unreasonable expectations, job insecurity and organisational change can contribute to the presence of workplace bullying.
  • Leadership styles: sometimes a manager’s leadership style can encourage or contribute to bullying. Is your manager autocratic, abusive, demeaning, or order little involvement or guidance to employees?
  • Systems of work: a lack of resources, training, inappropriate work scheduling and unreasonable performance measures can contribute to bullying.
  • Workplace relationships: is there low levels of support, work group hostility, poor communication and isolation?
  • Workforce characteristics: young workers, new workers, workers in minority groups (because of ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, or sexual preference), employees on return-to-work plans, volunteers and interns have a higher risk of exposure to workplace bullying.
3. Come up with solutions

If you have received a disclosure of bullying in the workplace, encourage that person to seek assistance from their organiser or call the ASU Contact Centre if they are a union member.

Your employer has a duty to ensure your workplace is free of bullying. However, together with your colleagues you can raise a number of solutions for the workplace to make discussions with your employer go more smoothly. You can show this to your employer when you raise the issue.

When you do this, think about the Hierarchy of Controls.

The Hierarchy of Controls is a way of figuring out how to eliminate or reduce an OHS risk or hazard. Start at the top of the Hierarchy and work your way down. Elimination is always the preferred option and PPE is always used as the last resort.

  • Can the risk be eliminated?
    • Managers should be proactively in addressing unreasonable behaviour to prevent it from becoming bullying
    • Bullying should not be tolerated. Any instances of bullying must be dealt with appropriately
  • Can the risk be reduced by substitution, engineering or isolation controls?
    • Substitution controls
      • Workplaces and work teams can be shuffled around to ensure people with interpersonal conflict are separated from each other
      • Consultation around existing bullying and harassment policies to see what improvements can be made
    • Engineering controls
      • Managers and supervisors should be provided with training on how to manage and supervise others
      • New and poor performing managers and supervisors should be provided with mentoring and support
      • Employers should clearly define what reasonable management action is and ensure all employees, supervisors and managers are aware of what it is
      • Policies and procedures should be in place for reporting and responding to incidents of unreasonable behaviour
      • Policies and procedures should be in place for managing reports of workplace bullying
    • Isolation controls
      • If a report of bullying is being investigated, the accused should be stood down or removed from the workplace until the incident is investigated
    • Can administrative actions be taken to reduce the risk?
      • Employers can create and communicate an organisational statement of commitment to a bullying free workplace
      • Employers can display signs about zero-tolerance to bullying
      • Employees can attend resilience training
4. Raise bullying and harassment as an issue with your employer

Once you and your colleagues have discussed solutions to the bullying hazard, you can raise this issue as a collective. We know that when you raise a workplace issue as a group, it is more likely your employer will take you seriously. We’ve created this template letter you can use.

If you or someone you know is currently being bullied, they can use their organisations grievance procedure to make a complaint. ASU members should contact their union Organiser or the ASU Contact Centre directly for advice.

5. Engage in consultation

Your employer MUST consult with any employees impacted by workplace changes. Section 35 of the OHS Act specifically compels employers to provide information, invite feedback, and genuinely consider feedback by workers.

If you have an elected HSR, your employer must reach out to them to consult. The HSR should consult with workers on any changes and solutions proposed.

If you don’t have a HSR, your employer must consult directly with employees.

Workplace consultation is a vital part of the process. Your employer should consult genuinely. This means your employer must consult with you and other employees impacted by the hazard by:

  • sharing information about the matter,
  • giving employees with reasonable opportunity to express their views,
  • taking those views into account.

If there is an elected HSR in the workplace, your employer can consult with the HSR, with or without the direct involvement of employees.

Remember, when your employer implements controls and solutions, they must start from the top of the Hierarchy of Controls. This means they should first consider ways to eliminate the hazard, and if that is not reasonably practicable, they must reduce the hazard so far as is reasonably practicable.

6. Escalate the issue

If your employer retaliates against you and your colleagues, ignores your demands, or doesn’t engage in genuine consultation, you can escalate this issue. If you haven’t already, union members can contact the ASU for advice and assistance.

Options to escalate the issue includes:

  • Elected HSRs using their powers to:
    • follow issue resolution procedures
    • issue a Provisional Improvement Notice
    • cease work
  • Contact WorkSafe and request an inspection
  • Elect an HSR, if there is no elected HSRs in the workplace
  • Submit incident reports for instances of bullying
  • File a grievance against the person bullying you