Everyone has the right to have a workplace free from bullying. If you’re being bullied at work, there are things you can do to make it stop.
For free and confidential legal advice about this topic, please contact us here.
What is workplace bullying?
Bullying at work is when a person or a group of people repeatedly act unreasonably towards you AND their behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. Some examples of bullying are:
- insulting, yelling or swearing at you;
- spreading rumours, gossip or innuendo about you;
- threatening phone calls or text messages;
- physical abuse like pushing, poking or hitting you; and/or
- teasing or playing practical jokes on you at work.
Workplace bullying can happen in lots of different ways, including face-to-face, on the company intranet or over the phone, via social media email or SMS. It can happen to volunteers, work experience students, interns, apprentices, casual and permanent employees.
Bullying doesn’t have to just be making fun of you or being mean to you. Sometimes it can be stuff that is hurtful but less obvious like:
- deliberately changing the roster because it inconveniences you;
- continually overloading you with work, or not providing enough work for you to do; and/or
- setting deadlines that are impossible to meet, or continually changing the deadline.
If you are under 18, bullying might also be child abuse. For more information about child abuse see our page on Child Abuse.
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. If the bullying involved violence, you may also be able to claim victims’ compensation. See our Victims of Crime page for more information.
If the bullying involved mental harm and you had to take time off, you may be able to claim workers’ compensation. If this has happened, you need to tell your employer as soon as possible and make sure they tell their insurer.
If you think you may have been bullied at work and would like some advice, contact us here.
What’s not workplace bullying
Some behaviour that feels humiliating, threatening, intimidating or demeaning is not against the law. For example:
- your employer can give you feedback about your performance;
- 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.
What’s the difference between bullying, harassment and discrimination?
Harassment is any form of behaviour that is offensive, intimidating, humiliating or threatening AND that is done because you have a particular personal characteristic, like being gay, or coming from another country, or having a disability. If someone has bullied you at work because of reasons like this, please see our factsheet on discrimination for more information. If you are being sexually harassed, please see our page on sexual harassment
Workplace discrimination is when someone treats you differently (not just meanly) at work based on a particular 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. Check out our factsheet on workplace discrimination if you want to know more.
Bullying can also be harassment or discrimination if you have been treated less favourably because of a personal characteristic that is protected under anti-discrimination laws.
What does my boss have to do about bullying?
The law says that employers must protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Because workplace bullying may harm the health, safety and welfare of employees your boss has to ensure that you are not bullied at work. If your employer is not stopping the bullying, you have a right to speak up. You can follow the steps in the next section to get the bullying to stop.
What can you do about bullying at work?
- First up, check to see if your work has a workplace bullying policy. Have a read through it and see if it has a specific process you have to follow or people you should talk to.
- If you feel comfortable, try talking to the person who is displaying the bullying behaviour and explain that the behaviour is unfair or offensive. If it is not safe to do so or you do not feel comfortable talking to this person, you can ask for someone else to be in the meeting with you, for example a work friend who you trust.
- You could speak to your supervisor or manager (if your supervisor or manager isn’t the person bullying you) or someone more senior than them in your team. You could also speak to whoever is in charge of workplace health and safety or someone in the human resources department.
- Make a written report or complaint to your employer about the bullying. This may just be a letter that you send explaining what has happened, what you have tried to do about it, and who you have spoken to.
It’s also a good idea to keep a diary to record examples of incidents. This makes it easier to show or prove specific examples of the bullying behaviour. Keep any related communications including abusive letters, screenshots of social media, SMS or emails.
If you decide to speak to someone at work, we encourage you to:
- write down your version of the things that the bully has done that have made you feel anxious or uncomfortable so that you don’t forget anything when speaking to someone;
- think about whether anyone else has witnessed the bully doing these things, and ask them if they’ll support you and come speak to someone with you; and
- suggest a possible solution (for example, do you want the bully to apologise, do you not want to be in his or her team?)
The Fair Work Commission has a free online training course on ‘Difficult Conversations in the Workplace’ here.
More formal steps
If your employer does not do anything about the bullying, then it may be time to consider further action.
- If the bullying doesn’t stop, you may be able to apply to the Fair Work Commission for a stop-bullying order. You can only get a stop-bullying order if you are covered by the national law on bullying. To find out if you can apply for an order visit the Fair Work Commission quiz website.
- You can also make a complaint to the relevant WorkCover Authority in your state or territory. Anyone can complain to WorkCover, regardless of who their employer is. They may decide to refer your complaint to an Investigator.
- If the bullying is discriminatory because it is based on a particular personal characteristic, for example, because you have a specific gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, age or other protected characteristic, you can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission or your state or territory anti-discrimination body. Please visit our page on discrimination to find out how to make a complaint.
- If a bully has threatened you, or physically or sexually assaulted you, you can report this to police. You can contact the police directly. If the bully has committed a crime, you may also be entitled to Victims’ Compensation. For more information about this, please visit our Victims of Crime page.
- If the bullying involved physical or mental harm and you had to take time off, you may be able to claim workers’ compensation. If this has happened, you need to tell your employer as soon as possible and make sure they tell their insurer.
- Other legal options:
- If you belong to a union, you can talk to them to see if they will advocate for you or negotiate with your employer on your behalf.
- Get legal advice about whether your employer has broken other laws, like your employment contract, and whether you may be able to sue them for compensation.
If you would like to speak to someone about what is going at work, you can talk to someone from Headspace or Kids Helpline. They are a free and confidential counselling service for people under 25. You can call them or chat online at:
If you are under 25 and you are unsure about your rights or responsibilities or what to do next, you can get free, confidential legal advice here.
October 23, 2018
May 7, 2019