Workplace bullying – A simple guide for employees

Workplace bullying is a complex and traumatic experience, however, there are some simple guidelines you can follow.  Please note, it is our experience that many organisations are unwilling to admit that bullying is a problem.

Being bullied at work? Workplace bullying – A simple guide for employees

Workplace bullying – A simple guide for employees

What is bullying at work, and how can you be sure?

Bullying can happen in any workplace and is best dealt with by taking steps to prevent it long before it becomes a risk to health and safety. The risk of bullying is minimised in workplaces where everyone treats their workmates with dignity and respect. Employers are required to develop systems that will prevent bullying, respond to reports of bullying and effectively meet their legal duties under occupational health and safety (OHS) laws.

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety‘Repeated behaviour’ refers to the persistent nature of the behaviour and can refer to a range of behaviours over time.  ‘Unreasonable behaviour’ means behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard for the circumstances, would see as victimising, humiliating, undermining or threatening.

However, employees may not report bullying because they:

  • do not recognise bullying behaviour as a hazard;
  • accept bullying as a normal part of work culture;
  • feel intimidated or embarrassed;
  • worry that reporting bullying may reflect badly on them and affect their career prospects (that they may be labelled “weak” or “whinging”);
  • aren’t sure how to deal with the problem or who to report it to;
  • believe no-one will act on the problem; or
  • fear retribution from the bully.

Many sources provide descriptions of some of the acts that could be considered to be bullying, if they also meet the criteria above. These include (but are not limited to):


  • Behaviour or language that frightens, humiliates, belittles or degrades, including criticism that is delivered with yelling and screaming.
  • Excessive, unjustified or unreasonable monitoring of work.
  • Open or implied threat of the sack, or demotion or being pressured to resign.
  • Repeated unreasonable assignment of duties which are obviously unfavourable to a particular individual.
  • Creation of an oppressive and/or unhappy work environment to coerce or intimidate employees.
  • Withholding or denying access to necessary information, consultation or other resources.
  • Intimidation or threats to employees not to report or complain about conditions, unacceptable behaviours or health, safety and welfare.
  • Being required to perform tasks without proper training or instruction, and which may place a employee at risk from injury.
  • Social or physical isolation (which might also include withholding information or preventing access to opportunities).
  • Unreasonable overtime, unfair rostering, allocation of work or being asked to perform non-work related tasks.
  • Overwork (such as impossible deadlines, undue disruptions).
  • Being excessively supervised or criticised.
  • Destabilisation/undermining behaviours (eg. failure to give credit, assigning people meaningless tasks, setting people up to fail).
  • Subjected to constant ridicule and being put down in front of co-employees.
  • Overloading a person with work and/ or Setting timelines that are very difficult to achieve, or constantly changing deadlines;
  • Damage or interference with personal belongings, sabotage or undermining of work.
  • Spreading malicious rumours and gossiping.
  • Harmful or offensive initiation practices; Physical assault or unlawful threats.
  • Unfair treatment in relation to accessing workplace entitlements, such as leave or training.
  • Teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of practical jokes

Bullying can be directed at a single worker or a group of workers and be carried out by one or more workers. Bullying can occur:

  • Downwards from managers to workers – for example, a manager or supervisor in a position of power may have a management style that seems to be strict or disciplinary when in fact it is bullying.
  • Sideways between workers or co-workers – for example, a co-worker seeking to enhance their position or sense of power in the workplace.
  • Upwards from workers to supervisors or managers – for example, workers may bully their manager or supervisor to try and drive them from the workplace.

It is also important to be objective and fair in your own assessment of the treatment you are receiving.  It is for this reason that it is important to keep a diary and attempt to record as best you can all of the events detailing where it happened, who was involved, what was said or done, and stated reasons, or the absence of sound reasoning (by alleged perpetrators) for their attitudes and behaviours.  This will help you to establish a pattern that may or may not meet with ‘repeated and unreasonable behaviour’ when viewed objectively.  All of this information will be crucial in establishing your case, if there is one.

What may at first appear or feel like unfair treatment may be viewed by objective observers as standard performance management by alleged perpetrators.  It is for this reason that it is important to keep an accurate record of events you believe to be repeated and unreasonable behaviour by management and/or co-workers against you.

It is also important to record any health issues you may be experiencing as a result of being the target of unreasonable treatment.

What you can do about workplace bullying

If you believe you are being bullied there are things that you can do to help to address it.

Firstly, it is important to determine whether or not the alleged bully can be confronted and reasoned with.  Even then, confronting a bully can be very difficult for most people, especially if the person is unreasonable and aggressive.

Approach the bully only if you feel safe and confident and tell them that their behaviour is unwanted and not acceptable.

If you are unsure how to approach them, you might be able to get advice from an appointed contact person, or from a colleague or manager.

Your employer should have risk assessments that address the risks of bullying at your workplace. Your workplace will usually have a process for making a complaint and resolving disputes, which might include a warning, requiring the bully to have counselling, a mediation process, or even firing the bully if the situation continues. The person to talk to might be your supervisor/manager, a harassment contact officer, or a health and safety representative

If the bullying is serious, if the situation has not changed after complaining to your manager, or if there is not anyone you can safely talk to at work you can get outside information and advice

For specific advice, WorkCover can send an inspector or a business advisory officer to your workplace, free of charge. They can determine if the behaviour is a risk to health and safety, and assist your employer with preventing it or undertake enforcement action if appropriate.  Please note, WorkCover quite often are not reliable in carrying out these types of interventions,

You can, however,  contact WorkCover on 13 10 50 or through You can remain anonymous if you wish.

You can also get in touch with your occupational health and safety (OHS) or union representative; they can help you check your industrial award or workplace agreement.

Remember it is important to keep a journal of the whole process; this will help provide clarity and detail to your situation in the future.

 Bullying is bad for your health

It is not uncommon for targets of workplace bullying to feel that the unfair treatment they are experiencing is in their heads.  They can also be accused of being too sensitive or paranoid.   In fact, bullying is so widespread that it is often considered ‘just the way we do things around here’.  This is often what leads targets to believe that perhaps they’re going a little crazy.

Germans and the French call it “the slow poison”, because consistent bullying tends to wear people down, both mentally and physically, over time.  It acts on the nervous system like a slow acting poison.

Individuals are unique and often react differently – some internalise the damage by becoming quiet, withdrawn, irritable and suffer from mood swings.  Others may have problems maintaining concentration at work and start making mistakes that could lead to accidents.  Many find themselves becoming tearful for no apparent reason and/or have trouble relaxing or sleeping.  In others, the stress may manifest itself physically, in the form of rashes, neck and shoulder pain.  In severe cases, stress resulting from workplace bullying can result in depression mental and emotional problems, family breakdown, relationship problems, even suicide.

Often targets feel helpless and isolated which tends to make matters worse and fear speaking out because they don’t want to be labelled a troublemaker.  Additionally, there is the risk that by speaking out they may be sacked or demoted or miss out on job promotions.   Unfortunately, these are very real possibilities in some workplaces.



Research also shows that bullying can and does have devastating impact on individuals. Individual reactions often include:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance;
  • impaired concentration or ability to make decisions;
  • loss of self esteem and confidence, a sense of isolation or withdrawal from the workplace;
  • physical illness, including digestive problems, skin conditions, headaches and musculoskeletal disorders;
  • injury, or increased risk of injury, particularly psychological injury;
  • reduced work performance;
  • incapacity for work resulting in workers’ compensation claims;
  • loss of employment;
  • deteriorating relationships and reduction in quality of home life; and
  • depression and risk of suicide.

If you are having health issues as a result of your treatment at work it is important that you tell your doctor about it.

It is also important that you lodge a workers compensation claim as well as seek legal advice

Important information: What to do if you are injured at work


Also check out our Frequently Asked Questions page, which explains the workcover process, lodging a stress claims etc etc.




5 Responses to “Workplace bullying – A simple guide for employees”

  1. Thank you John for the re-posting the Guide.
    It is in my experience that protection is mandatory when complaining about a manager. Most bullies are or do tend to be in positions authority. Yet this is not offered, Policy is re-interpreted in favour of the organisation to avoid possible legal intervention. 9 times out of 10 this will deter the victim from further pursuit, mean while the organisation goes into protection mode and subjects to victim to more unwelcome, unreasonable and unnecessary behaviour in order to drive them out.
    Legal options apart from unlawful dismissal are very costly and as you mentioned work cover rarely intervene. If they do intervene and you end up with a moron for an inspector you run the risk of the inspector overlooking your genuine concerns and no action taken to help or protect you. This then gives the employer the Green light to continue their attack.
    The Biggest risk is to your health and probably more so if the bullying results in a secondary injury, this is where the work cover system really fails to protect and provide assistance to the injured worker.
    Injured people the employer and insurer want you to develop a secondary psychological injury, it doesn’t cost them anything as the system only allows you to seek damages for one injury, its one or the other not both, this is like icing on the cake for these sick bastards as you suffer for the rest of your life.
    I have found that government employers are the worst offenders and only apply their policies and codes of conduct when media get involved or when the police are called in.
    I do hope the federal government defines the law clearly so that employers, their agents Insurers are held to account.

    • I have yet to come across any employer who is willing to acknowledge they have a culture of bullying. Usually they will try and write it off as a case of a few bad apples rather than admit senior management enable the bullying.

      Tough management and victims being too sensitive and immature is how they often attempt to minimise claims of widespread bullying. Never will you get senior managers and executives to admit the fault lies in their poor management and leadership ability.

  2. Victims have ways to end workplace bullying

    ACT workplace safety laws have covered bullying since 2008, when a code of practice for preventing and responding to harassment was implemented. Photo: Andrew Quilty

    Bullying is the buzzword in every government department at the moment. Ministers are preoccupied with questions such as how we stamp out bullying in the workplace and the schoolyard. Can we legislate to criminalise it, as in Victoria? Is that going too far?

    Bullying and harassment are serious and systemic issues that have plagued workplaces for years. From the blatant (such as the apprentice who has the pressure hose turned on him every Friday, as part of an induction ritual) to the subtle (the boss who manipulates and contrives situations so that one employee is always excluded, never selected for training courses and never given an opportunity to progress). Bullying takes many forms and is present in almost every workplace.

    In Victoria, individuals who engage in workplace bullying are now potentially liable for criminal sanction, including up to 10 years in jail.

    Also present in most workplaces is the pervasive silence that protects the perpetrators. Many researchers have written about this silence; it’s a widespread phenomenon and a largely unexplained one. Even in the public service, where there are codes of conduct and fairly robust policies dealing with workplace bullying and harassment, the issue arises again and again.

    One of the difficulties lawyers face when dealing with cases of workplace bullying is translating the appalling treatment the individual endures into a legal cause of action. There is no common law or statutory claim of bullying that an individual can make. Practitioners have been forced to try to shoehorn bullying claims into some other cause of action. If there is an anti-bullying policy in the workplace, perhaps it is implied in the contract of employment, and the employee could sue for breach of contract. Bullying will sometimes constitute adverse action, but not always. If the individual has a disability or is of a particular ethnic origin, it’s possibility a discrimination claim may be available. All of these causes of action, however, have always been ancillary to the bullying behaviour itself, and have often been hard to establish unless the bullying was protracted, documented in some way and caused the individual significant harm.

    A good example of a successful claim run in this way is the 2005 case of Naidu v Group 4 Securitas. In this case, a security guard, Devandar Naidu, suffered serious psychiatric injuries from over five years of bullying while employed by Group 4 Securitas. Through a contract with Group 4, Naidu provided security services to a subsidiary of News Ltd. Under the contract, he was supervised by a News Ltd employee, Lance Chaloner. The evidence before the court was that Chaloner subjected Naidu to racial vilification, sexual assault and harassment, in and outside the workplace for years. Even in this case of extreme bullying, the victim had to rely on discrimination laws and a workers’ compensation claim in order to seek redress for the harm he had suffered.

    These legal avenues protected Naidu well. He was awarded $2 million in damages, including lost salary of $70,000 a year until the age of 65, general damages of $200,000 and exemplary damages against News Ltd of $150,000. But what if Naidu had not been Fijian and the racial vilification claim had been unavailable to him? He would have needed to rely on the workers’ compensation claim as his only means of redress.

    Perhaps this is why bullying and harassment have become the focus of workplace health and safety laws in recent years. These laws do not rely on individual workplace insurance policies in the same way that workers’ compensation does. Workplace health and safety laws provide safety standards that are monitored by an independent regulator, which can prosecute for breaches. In the ACT, bullying has been the subject of such laws since 2008, when a code of practice for preventing and responding to workplace bullying was implemented.

    A code of practice is a standard that WorkSafe ACT sets. It’s the minimum standard that workplaces must meet when dealing with bullying. The code can be used as evidence of discharge of an employer’s duty to do everything reasonably practicable to provide staff with a safe workplace. In the ACT, this means an employer must:

    Identify bullying risk factors.
    Assess and control the risk factors.
    Provide training to staff on how to handle bullying in the workplace.
    Encourage reporting of bullying behaviour.
    Properly investigate complaints of bullying behaviour.
    Act on outcomes of investigations into bullying behaviour.

    In Victoria, ”Brodie’s law” was recently introduced in a further effort to stamp out bullying in the workplace. This legislative change extends the definition of the offence of stalking in the Crimes Act to include behaviours that are typical of workplace bullying. These changes mean it is not only employers who will be liable for damage caused by bullying in the workplace: individuals who engage in bullying are now potentially liable for criminal sanction, including up to 10 years in jail.

    There has been much debate about whether a similar law should be introduced at the federal level. However, until that sort of change takes place, ACT employees will be restricted to the kind of investigation and criminal sanction available under workplace health and safety laws.

    The renewed focus on workplace bullying is a timely reminder that these laws give victims a useful alternative to other legal claims. WorkSafe ACT’s recent investigation into bullying at the CIT emphasises the importance of employers treating bullying seriously, and that failing to do so can lead to a very public naming and shaming process. Employees can feel safe knowing that, even if identifying other legal avenues for redress is difficult, workplace health and safety laws provide a good avenue for independent investigation into bullying complaints.

    Jennifer Wyborn is a senior associate specialising in industrial relations and employment law at Williams Love & Nicol Lawyers.

    Read more:

    workcovervictim3 September 4, 2012 at 5:34 pm
  3. Thank you John for re-publishing the bullying guide, very important information.
    We also have additional resources for bullying under our “resources” – see: