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An Employer’s Guide to Managing Workplace Bullying


Workplace bullying is a prevalent psychosocial hazard in Australia, causing both physical and psychological harm to employees and resulting in significant economic costs to Employers.

Under Section 789FD of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), workplace bullying is defined as the repeated unreasonable behavior towards a worker or a group of workers, and that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

The Australian Government Productivity Commission estimates that the economic cost of bullying in Australia is as high as $36 billion per year, considering hidden and lost opportunity costs. Most importantly, the issue poses a substantial risk to health and safety, making it imperative for employers to take comprehensive measures to prevent and address workplace bullying. This article will provide employers with a guide on how to manage workplace bullying.

1. Prevention

Preventing workplace bullying is the most effective approach to addressing this psychosocial hazard.

Employers should establish processes and practices to identify potential problems and mitigate the risk effectively:

  • Establish Health and Safety Representatives/Committees: Regular consultations with employees can help ensure that they are aware of the avenues available to report bullying and investigate its occurrence. This also helps identify factors that may increase the risk of workplace bullying.
  • Monitor Incidents: Keep a close watch on incident reports, workers’ compensation claims, patterns of absenteeism, extended sick leave, staff turnover, and grievances. Making this topic part of regular reporting at the senior management level, with assist in identifying patterns or sudden unexplained changes is crucial for early intervention.
  • Conduct Exit Interviews: Gain insights from employees who leave the organisation to understand their experiences and identify any bullying-related concerns.
  • Recognise Changes in Workplace Relationships: Pay attention to changes in workplace dynamics between employees, as they may indicate underlying issues, which employers are obliged to address.

Additionally, managing the effects of workplace bullying can be minimised through various strategies:

  • Management Commitment: Top-level management should demonstrate a strong commitment to preventing workplace bullying, setting the tone for the entire organisation.
  • Setting Clear Standards: Employers should establish clear standards of workplace behavior, emphasising respect, fairness, and inclusion.
  • Fostering Respectful Workplace Relationships: Encouraging open and respectful communication among employees can reduce the likelihood of workplace bullying.
  • Designing Safe Systems of Work: Employers should ensure that work systems and processes are designed to minimise opportunities for bullying and promote a safe environment.
  • Implementing Reporting and Response Procedures: Clearly defined procedures for confidential reporting and responding to workplace bullying incidents should be in place to ensure a timely and effective resolution.
  • Providing Training and Information: Employees should receive regular training and information about workplace bullying prevention, enabling them to recognize and address such issues.

2. Responding Effectively

Once an employer becomes aware of, or suspects workplace bullying, it is critical to respond promptly and appropriately.

The following steps should guide the response:

  • Determine if the behavior constitutes workplace bullying by evaluating whether it aligns with the definition provided in the Fair Work Act.
  • Assess whether the situation requires immediate measures to minimise ongoing harm to the affected employee(s).
  • Ensure a clear understanding of the issues by actively listening to the parties involved and gathering information.
  • Seek additional information or assistance if necessary, such as engaging external experts in workplace psychology or conflict resolution.
  • Consider resolving the matter at a team level if it can be addressed through constructive communication and conflict resolution techniques.
  • Decide whether to progress the matter to a formal investigation if the issue cannot be resolved internally.

Supervisors and line managers play a crucial role in early intervention when they observe unreasonable behavior. They should know when to seek advice or escalate issues to higher management or HR. Health and safety representatives can raise issues on behalf of workers but are not responsible for resolving the matter; their role is to facilitate communication and advocate for employees’ safety.

Maintaining confidentiality, procedural fairness, neutrality, and support for all parties is essential throughout the response process. Employers should not victimise anyone involved, and they should communicate the process and outcomes clearly while keeping records to ensure transparency and accountability for all parties involved and the organisation.

3. Thorough Investigations

Workplace bullying reports and incidents should always be investigated, regardless of their nature, as an essential part of the response process.

When conducting an investigation, employers should consider the following factors:

  • Select an unbiased and experienced investigator who has knowledge and expertise in the areas of investigations and workplace bullying.
  • Inform the parties involved of the investigation’s details, ensuring transparency and fairness.
  • Provide a comprehensive report outlining the investigation’s scope, evidence collected, individuals interviewed, and the findings. This report should serve as a basis for any necessary decisions, actions or interventions.

Employers must take proactive measures to prevent and address workplace bullying, beginning with strong prevention measures, responding effectively when issues arise, and conducting thorough investigations.

By prioritising the safety and well-being of their employees, employers can create a respectful and productive work environment, reducing the social and economic impact of workplace bullying.

A comprehensive approach to managing workplace bullying not only protects employees but also ensures a healthier, more harmonious workplace, leading to improved morale, productivity, and overall success for the organisation. While the establishment, communication, training and monitoring of effective systems, processes and policies associated with preventing bullying in the workplace will take an investment from employers, the positive impact across a business will be worth it. The costs of addressing poor behaviour always outweigh the costs of prevention, not to mention the benefits of retention of staff and a positive culture.

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Written by
Victoria Lockley
Naturally analytical and perceptive, Victoria takes a holistic approach to workplace matters, assessing information and facts, breaking down the issue and finding the best possible resolution for her clients.