Managing the workplace bully

The workplace bully can be alive and thriving in your business and now more than ever before the onus is on the employer to take action – or pay the price.

Many employers remain unaware that from 1 January 2014 a new all-encompassing Federal law came into effect that makes bullying conduct unlawful, giving employees a right to redress workplace bullying through the Fair Work Commission (Fair Work Act 2009).

Managing workplace bullying has been a common theme in my work as an HR consultant, and ensuring that businesses have an active Fair Treatment Policy aligned with regular training, is a crucial part of any good HR strategy.

However, evidenced by the number of candidates I interview who have left, or are planning to leave, their current employment because of a workplace bully,this remains a prominent employment issue.

Prior to this law being passed in 2014, there was no Australian legislation that specifically prohibited workplace bullying. Workers who wanted to pursue bullying claims had to rely on other general laws such as workers’ compensation laws, anti-discrimination laws, the general protection provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 and common law claims.

This all changed when the workplace bullying laws were introduced and formed part of the Fair Work Act 2009.

The new laws came about after a 2012 federal government report recognised workplace bullying as a hidden problem, with an estimated cost to the Australian economy of between $6bn and $36bn every year. Identifying workplace bullying cases were costing employers an average of $17,000 to $24,000 per claim.

Under the new laws a worker (which includes employees, contractors, subcontractors, outworkers, apprentices, trainees, students gaining work experience, as well as volunteers) will have access to the laws if the worker believes that he or she has been bullied at work.

What is bullying at work?

According to the Fair Work Commission (FWC), bullying at work occurs 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.

The FWC goes on to state that bullying may involve any of the following types of behaviour:
• aggressive or intimidating conduct
• belittling or humiliating comments
• spreading malicious rumours
• teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation ceremonies’
• exclusion from work-related events
• unreasonable work expectations, including too much or too little work, or work below or beyond a worker’s skill level
• displaying offensive material
• applying pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner.

However, in order for it to be bullying the behaviour must be repeated and unreasonable and must create a risk to health and safety.

What is not workplace bullying?

A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not workplace bullying, however it may be repeated or escalate and so should not be ignored.

While the FWC provides that “reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner”, does not constitute bullying, it is prudent to expect that disgruntled employees may allege that performance and conduct management amounts to bullying. Employers can ensure all such claims are mitigated by having a published Performance Management and Conduct Counselling Policy and document all meetings with employees.

Workplace conflict, differences of opinion and disagreements are generally not workplace bullying. People can have differences or disagreements in the workplace without engaging in repeated, unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety.

Employers must be diligent, keep an eye on what is happening in their workplace and take decisive action if bullying behaviour is evident.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
– Edmund Burke

Dealing with the workplace bully

The first step is to acknowledge that bullying could be a problem in your workplace. Employers need to remain diligent to monitor and observe employee interactions and recognise the signs, as well as provide opportunity for the victims to voice their concerns.

Unfortunately the workplace bully is difficult to spot – all too often they are charming and delightful to your face, but behind your back they torment and torture, leaving co-workers affronted and afraid.

In many of my experiences, the bullies in your business are your best performers. They’re clever, successful, and highly productive, making employers reluctant to deal with their menacing ways. But react you must – or deal with the consequences which include both direct and indirect costs:
• high staff turnover and associated recruitment and training costs
• low morale and motivation
• increased absenteeism
• lost productivity
• disruption to work when complex complaints are being investigated
• costs associated with counselling, mediation and support
• costly workers’ comp claims or legal action, and
• damage to business reputation.

The 3 types of bullies

According to psychologist Keryl Egan there are three types of bullies in the workplace.

The first are the accidental bullies, who respond demandingly and in a blunt manner because they’re panicked, rushed or stressed out.

The second are the narcissistic bullies, who crave power and will do anything to get it no matter how destructive it is, and have little care for who gets burnt in the process.

And the third are the serial bullies, who are almost impossible to cure because they’re psychotic sociopaths with a relentless and fearless appetite to systemically deceive and destroy.

Steps to manage bullying in your workplace

Unfortunately there is no way you can make your workplace totally “Bully Proof”, but you can take decisive steps to ensure your employees know their rights, have an avenue to express their concerns, and that you monitor employee behaviour to ensure that a bullying is quickly identified and effectively dealt with. A Fair Treatment Policy that is effectively rolled out to your team and regular training is the first step to achieving this fundamental requirement.

An Australian Government agency, Safe Work Australia, has published a Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying, providing appropriate information, instruction, training or supervision to employers, workers and other persons at the workplace.

Visit their website to download this guide:

Print it off and provide a copy to your employees in an accessible place such as the staff lunch room or on the shared document drive.

Employer action

Be the role model of how you’d like your employees to act. Have an anti-bullying policy written down as part of your employee handbook and openly state at staff meetings that your company will not condone bullying of any kind.

Frequently consult employees to see how they’re feeling about the workplace and make it easy for employees to complain if they’re the victim of a bully. If you spot a bully, take action immediately. Don’t tolerate it even for a second.

Responding to Workplace Bullying

• Act promptly
• Treat all maters seriously
• Maintain confidentiality
• Ensure procedural fairness
• Remain neutral and support all parties
• Do not victimise
• Communicate process and outcomes
• Document every meeting and keep records

About the author

Lizzy Boots is the Director of Boots & All Consulting and is an experienced human resources professional specialising in recruitment, retention and training strategies for the medical, health and beauty industries.

Bespoke services include: recruitment and selection, human resources support, employee performance management, training and development, policy and procedures, and employment contracts for the niche roles within the medical, health and beauty industry.

Based in Sydney, Lizzy has clients throughout Australia. For details, visit or call +61 414 644 463