Workplace Bullying

In recent years, awareness of workplace bullying has risen. There’s growing community acceptance that bullying in the workplace is unacceptable, and should be fixed when it occurs.

The information here is taken from our new guide ‘How to prevent and respond to workplace bullying’. It provides information for:

  • persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) and managers who must manage the risks of workplace bullying
  • anyone who thinks they are being bullied, so they can determine if workplace bullying is occurring and how the matter may be resolved
  • anyone who has had a bullying report made against them.

We recommend you read the full guide by either:

  • downloading it from the resources listing below, or
  • calling our Helpline on 1300 366 322 to request a printed copy


Bullying is a safety matter

Workplace bullying is a risk to work health and safety because it may affect the mental and physical health of individuals. Effects may include:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression
  • physical illness: headaches, fatigue, digestive problems
  • negative impact on work performance, concentration, ability to make decisions
  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family, friends

It can damage the reputation of your business and lead to:

  • high staff turnover, associated recruitment / training costs
  • increased absenteeism
  • lost productivity
  • costs for counselling, mediation and support
  • costs for workers compensation claims or legal action

Take a risk management approach

You can and must prevent and manage workplace bullying like other workplace hazards, by:

  • identifying its presence or potential
  • putting control measures in place to prevent or manage it
  • putting planning, resources and systems in place: for example, policies, procedures, consultation and training.

For practical steps on how to do this, see sections 5, 6 and 7 of our guide ‘How to prevent and respond to workplace bullying’ in the resources listing below.

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.

Examples of behaviour — whether intentional or not — that may be workplace bullying if they are repeated, unreasonable and create a risk to WHS include:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
  • unjustified criticism or complaints
  • deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities
  • withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
  • setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours

For more examples, see section 2 of our guide ‘How to prevent and respond to workplace bullying’ in the resources listing below.

It’s reasonable for PCBUs, managers and supervisors to:

  • allocate work
  • direct and control the way that work is done
  • give fair and reasonable feedback on a worker’s performance.

These actions are not considered workplace bullying if they are carried out lawfully and in a reasonable manner.

Differences of opinion and disagreements are generally not considered workplace bullying. People can have differences and disagreements at work without engaging in repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to WHS. People may also take offence at some behaviour that, in itself, is not unreasonable (including action by management). For more examples, see section 3 of our guide ‘How to prevent and respond to workplace bullying’ in the resources listing below.

Unreasonable behaviour may involve unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment which, in isolation, is not bullying.

For help with these matters, contact:

The Work Health and Safety Act 2012 includes specific protections around discriminating against someone for raising WHS concerns or performing legitimate safety-related functions.

Everyone in a workplace should be treated fairly and with respect.

Everyone at the workplace has a WHS duty and can help ensure workplace bullying does not occur:

  • PCBUs should be proactive in meeting their duty of care to reduce the risk of unacceptable behaviours occurring in their workplace
  • workers should be aware of their duty of care not to bully others in the workplace.

Failing to take steps to manage the risk of bullying can result in a breach of the work health and safety laws.

The Work Health and Safety Act 2012 requires the PCBU to ensure the health and safety of its workers, including their physical and psychological health. This means PCBUs must take reasonable steps to ensure the mental health of its workers, and could face penalties under the Act if it fails to take steps to identify and prevent bullying in its workplace.

WorkSafe’s free Advisory Service can help you develop your safety management system, and support you to create a mentally safe and healthy workplace — a known factor in preventing workplace bullying. Our Advisors can help you with practical tools and resources to do this. Book a free visit with an Advisor.

This explains what we can and cannot do, and what you can expect from us when you raise a bullying issue with us.

What we can do

We can only act on situations that fall within the scope of the Work Health and Safety Act 2012.

This includes verifying an employer or business (or other PCBU) is:

  • consulting with workers about work health and safety
  • providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risks to health and safety
  • providing and maintaining safe systems of work
  • monitoring the health and safety of workers and the conditions at the workplace, to ensure that work-related illnesses and injuries are prevented
  • providing appropriate information, instruction, training or supervision to workers and others at the workplace, to allow work to be carried out safely.

What we cannot do

There are some things we cannot do. These include:

  • mediate between the workplace parties involved
  • provide legal advice
  • provide counselling
  • order the employer or business (or other PCBU) to discipline the alleged bully or terminate their employment
  • take sides
  • deal with industrial matters not covered by the Industrial Relations Act 1984 or discrimination
  • issue an order to stop bullying behaviour – the Fair Work Commission has powers to issue these orders if required.

What we expect from you

We can provide you with a better service if you:

  • check that what is occurring to you is workplace bullying
  • try to resolve it in your workplace by:
    1. talking to someone – for example, your supervisor, manager, health and safety representative (HSR) or union representative – about what you are experiencing and what you can do about it
    2. checking if your workplace has an anti-bullying policy and reporting procedure and following it
    3. telling the other person that you object to their behaviour and asking that it stop (if you feel safe and comfortable doing this)
    4. reporting the behaviour as early as possible – for example, to your supervisor, manager, HSR or union representative – and/or using workplace reporting procedures
  • check that we are the right agency to approach for your issue if it’s still not resolved
  • read ‘What you can expect from us’, below
  • complete and submit the online complaint form, if you want to raise the issue with us.
  • We will acknowledge in writing that we have received your request.
  • We may contact you for more information.
  • We will decide on the most appropriate action by assessing the information you provide and the circumstances of your request, and by considering our compliance policy and prosecution guidelines
  • We will contact the workplace to which the issue relates (or the place from which the relevant person generally conducts their business or undertaking) by one of the following methods:
    • letter
    • phone call
    • attendance by an inspector.
  • We will take care to not disclose any information that may identify you if you have made a request for your identity to remain confidential. However, it is possible that the workplace parties will make assumptions about who has raised the issue with us. In some circumstances, remaining anonymous may limit the scope of our action.
  • We will be transparent with the workplace about why contact is being made and what their obligations are under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012. If a workplace attendance is undertaken, the inspector will make enquiries to:
    • assess the extent of compliance by the workplace duty holders with their work health and safety obligations in relation to the alleged bullying issues
    • support compliance with legislation.
  • Our primary purpose is to assess the extent of compliance with WHS laws and ensure compliance, not to support a person’s version of events over another or examine a potential breach of a code of conduct (although this may occur whilst we are making our enquiries).
  • Within 10 working days from receipt of your request, we will respond to your request which may include contacting you and/or the workplace.
  • We will keep you informed of progress and, when finalised, will provide you with the outcome, the reason for the decision and any actions taken. This will usually be via a phone call.
  • We will ensure that our decisions and actions are reasonable, fair and appropriate to the circumstances, based on consideration of all relevant legislation, policies and procedures.
  • We take unreasonable behaviour seriously. Our service charter outlines our standards of service. We do not view abuse, threats, intimidation or harassment of our staff by customers as part of their job. If your behaviour is unacceptable, we may set limits or conditions on your contact with us and provide you with a warning. If your unacceptable behaviour continues, we may cease all direct contact with you.

What you can expect from us

We may not be in a position to continue to respond to issues that have already been actioned by us. We may stop responding to you if we have already investigated and responded to your issues. If you have been provided with an opportunity to express your concerns, have been treated fairly, given reasons for decisions made and a reasonable explanation as to why your request can go no further, the matter will be closed. Any further correspondence from you about matters already dealt with will be noted, and no further action will be taken.