Topics explained – Bullying & Inappropriate behaviours

Like any other physical health and safety risk, psychological health risks from bullying, harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviours must be managed.

Such behaviours can have a significant negative impact on individuals and the workplace. They can occur in all types of work situations.

Bullying is often considered an individual or interpersonal issue. However, broader environmental factors, such as poor organisational culture and a lack of leadership are in fact the main hazards.

The most effective way to stamp out bullying is to stop it before it starts. This means creating a strong, consistent approach to preventing inappropriate behaviours from escalating, and fostering a positive, respectful work culture where bullying is not tolerated.

Take action

PCBUs must take steps to prevent inappropriate workplace behaviours.

Safe Work Australia’s national workplace bullying guide for employers explains:

  • what is and isn’t workplace bullying
  • how bullying can occur
  • how to identify and manage the risks, such as monitoring incident reports and patterns of absenteeism, and developing anti bullying policies and procedures
  • how to respond to allegations
  • how to conduct an investigation into allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviours.

PCBUs can help manage the risks by:

A complementary worker’s guide explains:

  • where to seek advice
  • what steps to take if a worker thinks inappropriate behaviour is occurring in their workplace
  • what to do if a workplace bullying report has been made against you
  • new legal provisions which allow the Fair Work Commission to consider individual applications to stop bullying in workplaces.

Bullying is a serious issue in workplaces across Australia and a risk factor for depression, anxiety and suicide. It doesn’t just hurt those involved. The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims.

The Productivity Commission estimates that workplace bullying is costing the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion every year.

Look for the signs

Examples of behaviour, whether intentional or unintentional, that could be considered workplace bullying include:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
  • aggressive and intimidating conduct
  • belittling or humiliating comments
  • unjustified criticism or complaints
  • spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
  • victimisation
  • practical jokes or initiation ‘ceremonies’
  • pressure to behave in a particular manner
  • repeatedly displaying offensive material
  • deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities or events
  • withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
  • deliberately setting unreasonable timelines, constantly changing deadlines, too much or too little work
  • repeatedly setting tasks unreasonably below or beyond a worker’s skill level
  • denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to a worker’s detriment
  • changing work arrangements such as rosters and leave to deliberately inconvenience.

Violence, for example physical assault or the threat of physical assault, should be reported to the police by calling 000 if it is an emergency, or 131 444 for non-urgent matters.

Grievance and complaints

Refer to our grievance and complaint resolution page. Follow your company’s Grievance and Complaint Resolution Procedure and if there no internal resolution then you can contact:

  • SafeWork SA on 1300 365 255 (for example, where the business has no grievance or complaint processes in place)
    • SafeWork SA cannot address an individual’s behaviour. We look into the processes the business has in place to make sure bullying & inappropriate behaviours don’t happen in their workplace, and if they do, what grievance process is available to workers and if these processes are being followed.
  • the Fair Work Commission for mediation and stop bullying orders, or
  • SA Police to report an assault and other criminal behaviour.

The most appropriate agency will depend on the nature of the complaint, the jurisdiction and the desired outcome.

What to do: Employers

Put a Bullying and Inappropriate Policy (template) in place and ensure it is understood by workers along with the Grievance and Complaint Resolution Procedure (template).

It is not bullying when you carry out, in an appropriate manner, reasonable management actions such as:

  • performance management processes
  • disciplinary action for misconduct
  • informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance or inappropriate work behaviour
  • asking a worker to perform reasonable duties in keeping with their job
  • maintaining reasonable workplace goals and standards.

However, if these actions are not conducted in a reasonable manner, they could still be considered bullying behaviour.

You should make reasonable attempts to resolve the matter internally through an informal or formal process (where available) before referring to external agencies for assistance. Refer to page 28 of the employer’s guide for a flowchart on responding to workplace bullying.

What to do: Workers

If you reasonably believe that you have been bullied or harassed at work you should make reasonable attempts to resolve the matter internally through an informal or formal process (where available) before referring to external agencies for assistance. In addition, you will need to:

  • keep records of specific incidents, dates/times and any witnesses
  • speak with your manager/supervisor, health and safety representative (if you have one) or union representative (if you have one)
  • keep records of who you spoke to and when
  • detail what actions have or have not been taken by you and your PCBU to resolve your complaint.

Where mediation and conciliation have failed, you may apply to the Fair Work Commission for assistance. If appropriate, the Fair Work Commission can make an order to stop the workplace bullying. The Commission’s anti-bullying jurisdiction does not cover all Australian workers, for example those employed by local or state governments, or PCBUs that are sole traders.

The national workplace relations tribunal’s jurisdiction is limited to preventing workers from being bullied at work. It cannot issue fines or penalties and cannot award financial compensation. Their focus is on resolving the matter and enabling normal working relationships to resume.

Prevention initiatives and services

Fair Work Commission
for workers, in a constitutionally covered business (eg Pty Ltd), reasonably believes that he or she has been bullied at work, they can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying. The Commission can only deal with applications for an order to stop bullying if a worker is bullied while they are still employed at the workplace.

Fair Work Ombudsman 13 13 94
works with employers, workers and the community to educate and enforce through workplace investigations, compliance notices and litigations.

Equal Opportunity Commission 8207 1977
provides an independent complaint handling service to help workers address issues of sexual harassment or discrimination (based on issues such as disability, race, sex, age, sexuality, religion, caring responsibilities, pregnancy or marital status). They do not act as advocates.

South Australian Employment Tribunal 8207 0999
provides mediation, alternative dispute resolution and support to people (and their representatives) involved in employment-related disputes.

ReturnToWorkSA 13 18 55
provides information and a complaint resolution service for employers and workers and/or representatives on procedures, rights and obligations.

Business SA
provides employer members with advice, training, mediation, support and specialist consultancy services.

SA Unions 8279 2222
provides information, training, advocacy, support, mediation and conciliation, investigation and access to alternative dispute resolution to all union members. The SA Unions Young Workers Legal Service provides free legal advice to workers under the age of 30 years.

Traineeship and Apprenticeship Services
provides information, advice and support to employers, and trainees and apprentices (and their parents and guardians, if they are aged under 18) who are engaged on training contracts.

WorkReady (Apprenticeships and Traineeships) 1800 673 097
provides information, advice and support to both employers and trainees, apprentices (and their parents and guardians, if they are under 18 years of age) who are engaged on training contracts.

Working Women’s Centre 1800 652 697
provides resources, information, support, training and advocacy for working women. Resources, some training and consultancy are available for organisations wanting to implement appropriate workplace behaviour strategies.

Further information

Online abuse in the workplace – Safe Work Australia

Preventing and responding to work-related violence guide

Safe Work Australia’s authoritative guide Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties describes how to build a psychologically healthy and safe workplace by identifying, assessing and controlling risks to workers’ mental health. It gives a step-by-step process for managing psychological injury, intervening early and taking preventative action to stop workers becoming ill or sustaining a psychological injury.

Preventing workplace violence and aggression guide – Safe Work Australia

Psychologically safe and healthy workplaces, risk management approach toolkit – Government of Western Australia, Department of Commerce

Heads up: practical information for employers and managers to help take action against workplace bullying

Heads up: practical information for small business owners about taking care of their own mental health

Heads up: practical information about mental health conditions including anxiety and depression

Heads up: information about suicide warning signs, prevention and support

Section  271 Fact Sheet – Confidentiality of information

Mental health assistance

beyondblue 1300 224 636
24/7 advice and information from trained mental health professionals

Heads Up
national campaign to support and create mentally healthy workplaces. A joint initiative of beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance

Headspace 1800 650 890
national youth mental health providing early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds

Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800
24/7 free confidential phone or online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25

Lifeline 13 11 14
24-hour confidential crisis support service

MATES in Construction 1300 642 111
suicide prevention in the construction industry

Mensline 1300 78 99 78
for access to professional counsellors experienced in men’s issues

SA Mental Health Triage Service 13 14 65
24-hour service if you need support and have never accessed a mental health service before

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
free 24/7 nationwide counselling if you are at risk of suicide

GPs can also refer you to specialist psychologist services, such as a Mental Health Shared Care Plan.