Q: What is bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate and threatening behaviour that is directed at someone over a period of time. The target is usually in a position where they cannot escape from the behaviour because the person behaving badly is in a more powerful position (by virtue of their place in the organisation, their personality, their knowledge, popularity or position of power).

Fair Work Australia defines bullying as occurring when: a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work AND the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.

Different types of bullying include:

  • Downwards bullying, when a target is bullied by a boss or supervisor;
  • Horizontal bullying, where a target is bullied by a colleague or group of colleagues;
  • Upwards bullying where a boss, supervisor is bullied by a worker or group of workers.

Workplace conflict, if not addressed appropriately can escalate into bullying. A person can also be a target of workplace bullying because they might represent a threat to other workers, or the workgroup as a whole (for example a person with a disability who is a bit slower than the majority of other workers, or a woman working in a male dominated industry, or a young worker working with a group of older workers or vice versa). Bullying, because of its longevity and seriousness can lead to psychological and physical health problems. That is why it is considered a psychological hazard under Workplace Health and Safety laws.

Initiation practices or right-of-passage rituals, that could potentially (physically or mentally) harm apprentices or trainees may be a form of bullying. While only occurring once, if there is a pattern of behaviour in the organisation where all trainees or apprentices undergo potentially  harmful rituals, this repeated behaviour may represent a pattern of bullying.

Q: What is Not Bullying?

Workplace bullying is not conflict where two people are arguing or disagreeing in a respectful manner. Bullying is not a one off altercation.  It is conflict. A physical altercation is assault.

Workplace bullying is not reasonable management action, carried out in a reasonable way. Managers are allowed to counsel their employees, critique their work and performance, and discipline them if it is reasonable to do so, and they do it in a respectful way. Managers sometimes make unpopular decisions, implement unpopular policies, transfer someone and deny staff members’ requests. However, if this behaviour is reasonable and can be justified, and is carried out respectfully it is not bullying.

A manager that yells at you in front of everyone each time you make a mistake may be exhibiting bullying behaviour. However, if they counsel you in a respectful manner it is not bullying. It is part of their job.

Q: What do I do if I think I am being bullied?

Have a look if your organisation has a bullying and harassment policy and complaint procedure. Talk to one of your ‘contact officers’. Talk to your manager, or someone in the organisation whom you trust. Often there is a Human Resource consultant (HR) in larger organisations that you can go to for help. If there is no-one in the organisation that you trust, talk to a friend, your parents, someone in your union, or ring up the Equal Opportunity or Anti Discrimination Commission in your state, or the state based OHSW regulator. Or talk to your GP. The Working Women’s Centre in your State or Territory may also be able to assist you if you are a woman who believes she is being bullied or harassed.

If you don’t feel safe, don’t approach the person who is behaving badly towards you, but if you are able, ask them to stop the behaviour and document that you have asked them to stop. Sometimes people do not understand the impact of their behaviour, or how they are making someone feel. If you can, talk to them about how their behaviour is making you feel. However, some people (and this is rare), don’t care how they behave, and if this is the case you need to avoid them as much as you can and get help from a more senior person in your organisation.

Don’t behave badly yourself, as that may only give a bully ammunition to say that you are the one  behaving badly.

Mediation maybe a good option to help you talk through the issues with the other party in a safe environment with a trained mediator, and come to a mutually acceptable solution. However mediation is not suitable for serious bullying, or if one party feels physically threatened by the other.

Q: What if it is not yet bullying, but it is really disrespectful behaviour and I don’t like it?

This is a really good opportunity to have a mediation and talk through the problems with a third party present, helping both of you to express yourselves, and explore options to resolve the conflict. Once again, talk to someone from your organisation that you trust. Can you talk to someone from HR?

When discussing the conflict focus on the specific behaviour that you would like to change (i.e “when you yelled at me in the team meeting”) rather than describe the person using labels or bad language (i.e “you are a bully”).