Workplace bullying and harassment

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Everyone has the right to have a workplace free from bullying and harassment. If you’re being bullied at work, there are things you can do to make it stop. 

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What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety, including the mental and physical health of workers.   

Examples of workplace bullying include behaving aggressively, teasing or playing practical jokes, or making unreasonable work demands.   

Example – workplace bullying

Beth is an apprentice at a mechanics garage. The boss yells and swears at her and criticizes her work sarcastically in front of other workers. This is workplace bullying.

What’s not workplace bullying

Some behaviour that feels humiliating, threatening, intimidating or demeaning is not against the law. Reasonable management action done in a reasonable manner is not defined as workplace bullying. For example:

  • your employer can give you feedback about your performance; 
  • your employer can put you on a performance management plan if you have been underperforming at work; 
  • your employer is allowed to transfer, demote, discipline, counsel, retrench or dismiss you (as long as your employer is acting reasonably and in accordance with your employment contract and any modern award or enterprise agreement that applies to your employment); 
  • your employer can decide not to promote you; and/or 
  • occasional one-off incidents in the workplace, for example if someone loses their temper or shouts or swears. 
Example – not workplace bullying

John works as a medical receptionist. He has made a few mistakes with booking appointments and record-keeping, so the practice manager has been meeting with him to set out a performance improvement plan. This is not workplace bullying.

What is workplace harassment?

Harassment in the workplace is any unwanted behaviour that offends or humiliates you, makes work a hostile environment and is targeted at you because of a personal characteristic.

Example of workplace harassment

Sam works as a shop assistant at a clothes shop. The other workers there constantly say mean things to him because he has autism. They regularly say things like “hey special Sam” and make other jokes about him. This is harassment based on Sam having a disability (autism) and is against the law.

Is bullying and harassment against the law?

Yes. The law says that employers must provide a safe workplace. Workplace bullying harms the health, safety and welfare of employees so employers have a legal duty to ensure that you are not bullied at work.  If you are being bullied at work, we have set out the steps to get the bullying to stop below.

While the focus of laws against workplace bullying is to protect workers who are experiencing workplace bullying in their current employment, there are also some specific types of bullying behaviours that would be illegal under the criminal law:

  1. If you are under 18, bullying might also be child abuse. For more information about child abuse see our page on Child Abuse 
  2. If the bullying was violent, it might also be a crime and you should report it to the police. This includes sexual or indecent assault, physical assaults, threatening you or damaging your property. You can get free legal advice from us by clicking here if you have experienced any of these crimes.  

You can find more information about workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination here. 

What can you do about bullying and harassment?

Everyone has a right to a workplace free from bullying and harassment. There are options available to you if you have experienced bullying or harassment at work, however the best option may depend on what type of behaviour you have experienced, as well as where you live.  

Internal complaint options

If you are actively experiencing workplace bullying, we usually recommend that you – 

  1. Keep a “chronology” – make a list of times and dates of any occasions where you have experienced workplace bullying, outlining what happened each time, and any witnesses who may also have been there. Keep any related communications including abusive letters, screenshots of social media, SMS or emails. 
  2. Find out if your employer has any grievance procedures or policies about workplace bullying. Read the policy to find out if there is a specific process you need to follow or specific people you should talk to. 
  3. Write a complaint to your employer in accordance with their policies, asking them to take reasonable steps to prevent workplace bullying and ensure your safety at work. 
  4. If you are a member of a union, you can talk to your representative or a union official about what’s going on. They will be able to tell you how they can help and guide you through the process. Click here if you are unsure which union you can join.

Employees have a workplace right to make a complaint or enquiry in relation to their employment when making a bullying complaint in accordance with workplace policies.  The Fair Work Act 2009 protects workers from suffering adverse actions (such as being dismissed or demoted) because they have exercised a workplace right.  You can find more information about legal protections for workers exercising workplace rights here.

External Complaint Options

Fair Work Commission Stop Bullying Application 

If an employer is unable or unwilling to prevent workplace bullying, a worker who reasonably believes they are being bullied at work can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop workplace bullying.  The Fair Work Commission cannot impose financial penalties or financial compensation to complainants for workplace bullying.   The Fair Work Commission cannot make any orders relating to bullying in previous employment.

The Stop Bullying application form, and information on how to fill it out, can be found here. 

You do not need to tell your employer if you have lodged this application; the Fair Work Commission will do that.   

If you are employed by a state entity, or a not-for-profit – e.g., NSW Health or the WA government, you may not be able to use this application, but there are still options available for you. Please click here to learn what you can do depending on what state you live in. 

Safe Work/Worksafe Authority

A worker who is experiencing bullying or other psychosocial hazards in their workplace may raise the issue with their State/Territory Work Health and Safety Authority –  for example workers in NSW can complete a Request for Service Form. 

You can find more information here.

Workers Compensation

If the bullying involved mental or physical harm and you needed to take time off work and/or required medical treatment, you may be able to claim workers’ compensation. You will need to firstly talk with a doctor to obtain a work-cover certificate, and let your employer know as soon as possible so they can notify their insurer.

What’s the difference between discrimination, harassment and bullying?

Bullying and harassment are different to discrimination, as well as specific types of harassment, including sexual harassment.  

  • Discrimination in the workplace is when someone treats you differently (less favourably) based on a legally protected personal characteristic, like being pregnant or having a disability.  For example, it would be discrimination if you don’t get a promotion just because you have a disability.   
  • Bullying and harassment are dealt with similarly at law. Harassment is when someone treats you in a way that is offensive, intimidating, humiliating or threatening AND that is done because you have a particular personal characteristic, like your race, being gay, or having a disability. Bullying is when someone repeatedly acts unreasonably towards you and their behaviour creates a risk to your health and safetyThere are different laws which cover these types of behaviour, so please click on our Bullying & Harassment factsheet for more information.
  • Sexual harassment at work is a specific type of sex discrimination, being any unwanted or unwelcome sexual conduct in situations where it could be expected might make you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.
Navigating this information may seem overwhelming. If you think you are experiencing workplace bullying and don’t know what to do, contact us here for free legal advice.  

People you can talk to for support 

If you would like to speak to someone about what is going on at work, we encourage you to contact one of the services we’ve listed below.  

eHeadspace  

eHeadspace offer free counselling to people aged 12 – 25. You can call them on 1800 650 890 (from 9am to 1am Australian Eastern Standard Time. You can also email or chat them online here.  

If you prefer to talk to someone face-to-face, you can make an appointment to visit a Headspace centre. You can find your local centre here.  

Kids Helpline  

You can call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 for free and private counselling (available 24 hours a day, but there can be a wait to get through). They are happy to talk to young people between the ages of 5-25 years about anything that’s troubling them. You can also email them or chat online here.   

Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue provides free telephone and online counselling to anyone in Australia. You can call a counsellor on 1300 22 4636 or chat online here.  

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