What you can do about workplace bullying

Employees will be able to legally disconnect from work out of hours, after industrial relations changes cleared the House of Representatives.

Employees will be able to legally disconnect from work out of hours, after industrial relations changes cleared the House of Representatives. Photo: Getty

Regulators are on the lookout for workplace bullies, with WorkSafe Victoria securing a conviction in the Victorian Magistrates Court for a boss it says subjected apprentices to physical violence, verbal insults, threats and intimidation.

The “bully boss” of a Tullamarine glass company was fined $60,000 for a bullying campaign waged on two apprentices which included hoisting one of them upside down at a work Christmas party.

WorkSafe executive director of health and safety Narelle Beer described the case as “deeply disturbing”, saying that “disgusting behaviour like this will simply not be tolerated and it’s up to employers to set the standard and ensure there are policies and procedures in place to prevent, respond and report workplace bullying”.

And although once regarded by some as a bizarre rite of passage for new apprentices, it is clear that this kind of “hazing” behaviour which involves degrading and humiliating young workers is rightfully well and truly off limits in the modern workplace, with serious consequences sought by state and federal regulators.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined by SafeWork Australia as behaviour in the workplace which is “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety”.

Unreasonable behaviour includes abusive, aggressive or belittling comments or conduct, but to meet the definition of bullying it must also be repeated, so an isolated incident will not, on its own, amount to bullying even if the behaviour amounts to a breach of other laws.

According to that definition, a report by Safe Work Australia in 2016 found that about one in 10 workers had been bullied, and of those that had been, more than half reported that the bullying occurred at least once a month.

Worse still, the SafeWork report found that nearly half of those that reported being bullied “had endured bullying for over six months”.

What can be done about it?

Workplace bullying in Australian law is dealt with by a patchwork of laws and regulations.

Each state and territory has workplace safety legislation similar to what was applied in Victoria in this case, and which outlaws bullying that creates a risk to health and safety.

And while individuals can bring claims in court because of workplace bullying in some circumstances, it is generally the regulators, like SafeWork NSW, WorkSafe Qld and WorkSafe Victoria, that would bring prosecutions against an employer and others responsible for the bullying.

At the federal level, the Fair Work Act gives power to the Fair Work Commission to hear and deal with workplace bullying issues and make orders to stop bullying in the workplace.

The power of the FWC is limited though, as once the employment ends so does its ability to make any order about it. It also has no power to order fines or compensation.

In 2022-23 the FWC received 681 applications for an order to stop bullying. This was up from 602 of those applications in the previous year, or an increase of just over 13 per cent, according to their latest annual report.

Safe Work Australia also publishes guidance for workers and employers about what to do about workplace bullying and how to manage it.

They say that workers who think that they might be experiencing workplace bullying should first check to see whether their employer has a bullying reporting policy and procedure that outlines how that employer will prevent and respond to bullying.

SafeWork also suggests that workers can speak to the other person, if they feel comfortable to, suggesting that a worker can “calmly tell the other person that you object to their behaviour and ask it that it stop” and that “they may not realise the effect their behaviour is having on you or others”.

If there is no bullying procedure in place, other documents that govern behaviour in the workplace, like a code of conduct, may also be useful.

Identify the issues

In some cases, this could be the best way to resolve the issue, as it may come down to what is merely a misunderstanding or difference in values.

But caution should be exercised and workers who feel that they are being bullied are well advised to seek the support of a third party that is removed from the workplace relationship, at the very least as a sounding board on the issues.

These days many companies will also provide access to free and confidential employee assistance programs (EAP) that can provide workers with initial and in some cases ongoing support for the effects of bullying.

Whatever direction it takes, SafeWork says that if you believe that you are experiencing or witnessing workplace bullying “it should always be reported”.

For that they suggest contacting a supervisor or workplace health and safety representative, your union, or by using the reporting procedures established in your workplace.

Scott Riches is a former union official with the Electrical Trades Union Victorian branch, and a practising employment lawyer. He is also a volunteer in the employment clinic at the Fitzroy Legal Service

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