Understanding bullying


Evidence suggests that many Australian employers have failed to understand and implement effective compliance strategies associated with the new workplace laws covering bullying and harassment. Employers have a legal responsibility to address this important compliance issue. Respectful workplaces can be seen as an antithesis for bullying and harassment.

Problem for employers

Workplace bullying and harassment has become a key issue for employers for two important reasons. Firstly, employers  have a legal obligation to fulfil and secondly, workplace bullying and harassment can cost organisations millions of dollars in lost productivity, unnecessary staff turnover and reduced competitive edge. In addition, organisations expose themselves to costly claimant payouts if they allow these negative behaviours to infiltrate and proliferate. 

Legal interpretation

Employers must have policies in place which prohibit workplace bullying and harassment, train employees and managers about these policies and monitor the workplace to ensure the policies are complied with.

Employers can find themselves liable to claims of workplace bullying and harassment through a variety of laws and claims can also be made through a variety of avenues. It is important to recognise that compliance alone may not lead to the desired behavioural changes in relation to bullying and harassment. Effective organisational change is essentially a learning process, which takes considerable resources, time and effort.

Bullying defined

The Australian Human Rights Commission states: “Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person or group of people at work. Some types of workplace bullying are criminal offences.”

The key elements that make up most definitions can be characterised by:

  • Imbalance and misuse of power.
  • Repetition.
  • Intention to change power status.
  • Lack of empathy.

Workplace bullying and harassment behaviours can be identified as:

  • Withholding information.
  • Isolation from other workers.
  • Use of sarcasm, humiliating and/or belittling remarks.
  • Public criticism and/or humiliation.
  • Persistent unfair criticism.
  • Blocking promotion.
  • Setting of unrealistic goals.
  • Refusing reasonable requests.
  • Intimidation.
  • Takes undeserved credit and/or improperly shifts blame.
  • Shouting and verbal abuse.
  • Displays uncontrolled anger, shouting and/or using vulgar language.
  • Physical threats.
  • Discounting or denial of accomplishments.
  • Undermining authority.
  • Invading privacy, such as reading emails or inspecting a computer hard drive.
  • Pattern of intimidation to prevent taking vacation or sick leave.
  • Demanding perfection.
  •  assigning meaningless tasks.
  • Excessive monitoring of work.
  • Sending memos that are designed to intimidate.

What IS NOT bullying?

We also need to understand what is not bullying, such as:

  • Setting performance goals, standards and deadlines.
  • Allocating work to a worker.
  • Rostering and allocating work hours.
  • Transferring a worker.
  • Deciding not to select a worker for promotion.
  • Informing a worker about unsatisfactory performance.
  • Informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour.
  • Implementing organisational changes.
  • Performance management processes.
  • Constructive feedback.
  • Downsizing.

(www.worksafe.vic.gov.au)

A clearer understanding of what employers, line managers and employees’ rights and responsibilities are may lead to a reduction of claims wrongly interpreted as bullying and harassment.

Respectful workplaces

One effective way of thwarting bullying and harassment in the workplace is by developing respectful workplaces. A respectful workplace is one where members act in a respectful way and do not bully or harass other members.

An educational game I co-designed (The Respectful Workplace Game) identified the following five principles applicable to developing respectful workplaces:

  • Maintain the self-respect and motivation of others (even when criticising).
  • Criticise actions and ideas, not people (criticise behaviour, not the character or capabilities of individuals).
  • Support others, rather than undermine them – keep the focus on improvement, not punishment.
  • Set realistic and attainable goals – requests and expectations should meet a standard of attainability and reasonableness.
  • Act assertively, not passively or aggressively – avoid the pitfall of taking aggressive action while thinking that it is assertive.

These principles can also be utilised as the basis for organisations wanting to develop their own policies in relation to complying with the laws pertaining to workplace bullying and harassment.

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Understanding bullying


Evidence suggests that many Australian employers have failed to understand and implement effective compliance strategies associated with the new workplace laws covering bullying and harassment. Employers have a legal responsibility to address this important compliance issue. Respectful workplaces can be seen as an antithesis for bullying and harassment.

Problem for employers

Workplace bullying and harassment has become a key issue for employers for two important reasons. Firstly, employers  have a legal obligation to fulfil and secondly, workplace bullying and harassment can cost organisations millions of dollars in lost productivity, unnecessary staff turnover and reduced competitive edge. In addition, organisations expose themselves to costly claimant payouts if they allow these negative behaviours to infiltrate and proliferate. 

Legal interpretation

Employers must have policies in place which prohibit workplace bullying and harassment, train employees and managers about these policies and monitor the workplace to ensure the policies are complied with.

Employers can find themselves liable to claims of workplace bullying and harassment through a variety of laws and claims can also be made through a variety of avenues. It is important to recognise that compliance alone may not lead to the desired behavioural changes in relation to bullying and harassment. Effective organisational change is essentially a learning process, which takes considerable resources, time and effort.

Bullying defined

The Australian Human Rights Commission states: “Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person or group of people at work. Some types of workplace bullying are criminal offences.”

The key elements that make up most definitions can be characterised by:

  • Imbalance and misuse of power.
  • Repetition.
  • Intention to change power status.
  • Lack of empathy.

Workplace bullying and harassment behaviours can be identified as:

  • Withholding information.
  • Isolation from other workers.
  • Use of sarcasm, humiliating and/or belittling remarks.
  • Public criticism and/or humiliation.
  • Persistent unfair criticism.
  • Blocking promotion.
  • Setting of unrealistic goals.
  • Refusing reasonable requests.
  • Intimidation.
  • Takes undeserved credit and/or improperly shifts blame.
  • Shouting and verbal abuse.
  • Displays uncontrolled anger, shouting and/or using vulgar language.
  • Physical threats.
  • Discounting or denial of accomplishments.
  • Undermining authority.
  • Invading privacy, such as reading emails or inspecting a computer hard drive.
  • Pattern of intimidation to prevent taking vacation or sick leave.
  • Demanding perfection.
  •  assigning meaningless tasks.
  • Excessive monitoring of work.
  • Sending memos that are designed to intimidate.

What IS NOT bullying?

We also need to understand what is not bullying, such as:

  • Setting performance goals, standards and deadlines.
  • Allocating work to a worker.
  • Rostering and allocating work hours.
  • Transferring a worker.
  • Deciding not to select a worker for promotion.
  • Informing a worker about unsatisfactory performance.
  • Informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour.
  • Implementing organisational changes.
  • Performance management processes.
  • Constructive feedback.
  • Downsizing.

(www.worksafe.vic.gov.au)

A clearer understanding of what employers, line managers and employees’ rights and responsibilities are may lead to a reduction of claims wrongly interpreted as bullying and harassment.

Respectful workplaces

One effective way of thwarting bullying and harassment in the workplace is by developing respectful workplaces. A respectful workplace is one where members act in a respectful way and do not bully or harass other members.

An educational game I co-designed (The Respectful Workplace Game) identified the following five principles applicable to developing respectful workplaces:

  • Maintain the self-respect and motivation of others (even when criticising).
  • Criticise actions and ideas, not people (criticise behaviour, not the character or capabilities of individuals).
  • Support others, rather than undermine them – keep the focus on improvement, not punishment.
  • Set realistic and attainable goals – requests and expectations should meet a standard of attainability and reasonableness.
  • Act assertively, not passively or aggressively – avoid the pitfall of taking aggressive action while thinking that it is assertive.

These principles can also be utilised as the basis for organisations wanting to develop their own policies in relation to complying with the laws pertaining to workplace bullying and harassment.

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