bullying in the workplace

Is bullying a bit like background noise in your organisation?

Bullying can be like something you notice in the work place and just get used to and accept as part of the work environment. That is, of course, unless it is happening to you. For others it may be a bit like loud noise, some airborne pollutants – a bit irritating but not causing any immediate problem. Much less an immediate illness or injury, which is the way most health and safety risks present themselves to workers and management.  Like noise causing deafness many years on, bullying can have long term and delayed effects. It may of course also have immediate effects.

In Australia there may be between 2.5 million and 5 million people experiencing some aspects of bullying at work. This is the estimate made by The Beyond Bullying Association.

What is it?

Workplace bullying[1] can be any negative behaviour that demonstrates a lack of regard for other workers. The Human Rights Commission defines workplace bullying as verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by an employer (or manager), another person or a group of people at work. It can happen in any type of workplace, from offices to shops, cafes, restaurants, workshops, community groups and government organisations. It can happen to volunteers, work experience students, interns, apprentices, casual and permanent employees.

Responsibility of employers

People conducting a business or undertaking (employers) have a legal responsibility under health and safety and anti-discrimination law to provide a safe workplace. Employers have a duty of care for the health and wellbeing of workers and others in the workplace at work. An employer that allows bullying to occur in the workplace is not meeting this responsibility.

Let’s take the scenario – I know it happening but……..  [2].

Then you are a bystander. A bystander is someone who sees or knows about bullying or other forms of violence that is happening to someone else. Bystanders can be either part of the bullying problem or an important part of the solution to stop bullying.

Bystanders can act in different ways when they see or know about bullying. Some bystanders take the side of the bully by laughing at the victim, encouraging the bully or by passing on text messages or messages on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. Some bystanders will give silent approval or encourage the bully by looking on. Some bystanders may watch or know about the bullying but don’t do anything. They may not know what to do or are scared. This group of bystanders knows that bullying is not OK.

Some bystanders will be supportive and take safe action to stop the bully, find help or support the victim

Supportive bystanders

Just as we have human rights we also have responsibilities to respect and protect the rights of others. A supportive bystander will take action to protect the rights of others. A supportive bystander will use words and/or actions that can help someone who is being bullied. If bystanders are confident to take safe and effective action to support victims then there is a greater possibility that bullying can stop and the person who is bullied can recover.

People respect those that stand up for others who are bullied but being a supportive bystander can be tough. Sometimes it is not easy to work out how to help safely because bullying happens in different ways and places such as online, at work or school. There is no one size fits all approach to being a supportive bystander. For supportive bystanders to take safe and effective action here are some suggestions:

  • Make it clear to your friends that you won’t be involved in bullying behaviour
  • Never stand by and watch or encourage bullying behaviour
  • Do not harass, tease or spread gossip about others, this includes on social networking sites like Facebook
  • Never forward on or respond to messages or photos that may be offensive or upsetting
  • Support the person who is being bullied to ask for help e.g. go with them to a place they can get help or provide them with information about where to go for help
  • Report it to someone in authority or someone you trust e.g. at school to a teacher, or a school counsellor; at work to a manager; if the bullying is serious, report it to the police; if the bullying occurs on Facebook, report it to Facebook.

What sort of bystander are you?

Some additional resources you may appreciate

Supportive Bystander Fact Sheet

The Commonwealth Fairwork Ombudsman can provide information and advice about Australia’s workplace rights and rules and protection against harassment and discrimination. Call 131394

If you are looking for help and advice because you are experiencing workplace bullying you may go to:

WorkSafe ACT  or call 02 6207 3000

WorkCover NSW  or call 13 10 50

NT WorkSafe   or call 1800 019 115

SafeWork SA or call 1300 365 255

Workplace Victoria

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland or call the young workers advisory service 1800 232 000 and the Workplace Bullying hotline 1800 177 717

WorkSafe WA or call 1300 655266

Unions Australia or call the Workers helpline 1300 486 466


[1] Some types of workplace bullying are criminal offences. If this is the case report it to the police

[2] This information on bullying bystanders is largely taken from the Human Rights Commission website

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