Bullying and harassment in the workplace

What is bullying?
A worker is bullied at work if:

a person or group of people repeatedly act unreasonably towards them or a group of workers
the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.
Unreasonable behaviour includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening. Whether a behaviour is unreasonable can depend on whether a reasonable person might see the behaviour as unreasonable in the circumstances.

Examples of bullying include:

behaving aggressively
teasing or practical jokes
pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
excluding someone from work-related events or
unreasonable work demands.

What isn’t bullying?
Reasonable management action that’s carried out in a reasonable way is not bullying.

An employer or manager can:

make decisions about poor performance
take disciplinary action
direct and control the way work is carried out.
Management action that isn’t carried out in a reasonable way may be considered bullying.

How is bullying different to discrimination?
Discrimination happens when there’s ‘adverse action’.

Adverse action includes firing or demoting someone because of a person’s characteristics, like their race, religion or sex.

Bullying at work happens when:

a person or group of people repeatedly act unreasonably toward a worker or a group of people workers
the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.
This behaviour doesn’t have to be related to the person (or group’s) characteristics. Adverse action doesn’t have to have happened.

Who is protected from bullying in the workplace?
The national anti-bullying laws cover most workplaces (or those that are constitutionally covered businesses). These laws also cover:

students gaining work experience
contractors or subcontractors
The Fair Work Commission (the Commission) is the national workplace relations tribunal that deals with anti-bullying claims under the Fair Work Act.

Workplace bullying can happen in any type of workplace, from offices to shops, cafes, restaurants, workshops, community groups and government organisations.

Workplace bullying can happen to volunteers, work experience students, interns, apprentices, casual and permanent employees.

Criminal Defence Lawyers

Some types of workplace bullying are criminal offences.

What does bullying in the workplace look like?
repeated hurtful remarks or attacks, or making fun of your work or you as a person (including your family, sex, sexuality, gender identity, race or culture, education or economic background)
sexual harassment, particularly stuff like unwelcome touching and sexually explicit comments and requests that make you uncomfortable
excluding you or stopping you from working with people or taking part in activities that relates to your work
playing mind games, ganging up on you, or other types of psychological harassment
intimidation (making you feel less important and undervalued)
giving you pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
giving you impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
deliberately changing your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you
deliberately holding back information you need for getting your work done properly
pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing you in the workplace
attacking or threatening with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any other type of object that can be turned into a weapon
initiation or hazing – where you are made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of the team.
How bullying can affect your work
If you are being bullied at work you might:

be less active or successful
be less confident in your work
feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
have your life outside of work affected, e.g. study, relationships
want to stay away from work
feel like you can’t trust your employer or the people who you work with
lack confidence and happiness about yourself and your work
have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches, sleep problems

Implications of workplace bullying
There are legal obligations to consider all health and safety risks in the workplace including workplace bullying.

Failure to take steps to manage the risk of workplace bullying can result in a breach of WHS laws.

Workplace bullying is best dealt with by taking steps to prevent it from happening and responding quickly if it does occur. The longer the bullying behaviour continues, the harder it becomes to repair working relationships and the greater the risk to health and safety.

Effects of Bullying

Effects of bullying
Workplace bullying can seriously harm worker mental health with depression, psychological distress and emotional exhaustion common outcomes for bullied workers. These health outcomes may adversely impact the workplace with workers taking sick leave and being less productive (presenteeism), both of which damage productivity.

Managing the risk of workplace bullying
Organisations can minimise the risk of workplace bullying by taking a proactive approach to identify early, any unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying occurring.

Organisations should implement control measures to manage these risks, and monitor and review the effectiveness of these measures. This could include activities such as:

Regularly consulting with workers and health and safety representatives to find out if bullying is occurring or if there are factors likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying.
Setting the standard of workplace behaviour, for example through a code of conduct or workplace bullying policy.
Designing safe systems of work by clearly defining jobs and providing workers with the resources, information and training they need to carry out their work safely.
Implementing workplace bullying reporting and response procedures.
Developing productive and respectful workplace relationships through good management practices and effective communication.
Providing information and training on workplace bullying policies and procedures, available support and assistance, and how to prevent and respond to workplace bullying.
Prioritising measures that foster and protect the psychological health of employees.
Benefits of preventing workplace bullying
In 2016, we published a report that outlines how improving management commitment to psychological health and safety could be an innovative strategy to reduce lost productivity, as well as substantially improve the wellbeing of workers.


The report interrogated data from the 2014–15 Australian Workplace Barometer Project, collected via telephone from 4,242 employees nationwide.

Key findings included:

The total cost of depression to Australian employers due to presenteeism and absenteeism is estimated to be approximately $6.3 billion per annum.
Workers with psychological distress took four times as many sick days per month and had a 154% higher performance loss at work than those not experiencing psychological distress. This equates to an average cost of $6,309 per annum in comparison with those not experiencing psychological distress.
Relative to workers with high engagement, workers with low engagement have approximately 12% more sick days per month and an average performance loss of eight per cent, costing employers $4796 per annum.

Under anti-discrimination law, it is unlawful to treat a person less favourably on the basis of particular protected attributes such as a person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, disability or age. Examples of unlawful actions can include harassing or bullying a person. Workplace anti-discrimination law is set out in federal and state statutes. There are specific legal provisions for sexual harassment, racial hatred and disability harassment.


Bullying is defined under section 789FD of the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 (Cth) as when an individual or group of individuals repeatedly behave unreasonably towards a worker and that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying includes a range of behaviours such as:

yelling, screaming or offensive language;
excluding or isolating employees;
psychological harassment;
assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to the job;
giving employees impossible jobs;
deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience particular employees;
undermining work performance by deliberately withholding information vital for effective work performance;
constant unconstructive criticism and/or nitpicking;
suppression of ideas; and
overloading a person with work or allowing insufficient time for completion and criticising the employees work in relation to this.

Source: https://www.fairwork.gov.au/employee-entitlements/bullying-and-harassment

Source 2: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/employers/workplace-bullying-violence-harassment-and-bullying-fact-sheet

Source 3: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/bullying#implications-of-workplace-bullying

Source 4: https://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/policy-agenda/advancing-the-profession/equal-opportunities-in-the-law/bullying-and-harassment-in-the-workplace