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Bullying and the Workplace FAQs

21 June 2013

1. What is workplace bullying?

Each State and Territory has its own definition or legislation regarding workplace bullying. When proven, workplace bullying constitutes a breach of the relevant State Workplace Health and Safety Acts as it poses a risk to employees' health and wellbeing.

WorkSafe Victoria has published a guidance note called "Prevention of Bullying and Violence at Work". This guidance note defines workplace bullying as 'repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees (including managers) that creates a risk to health and safety'. A National Code is currently in the process of being developed but will need to be adopted by each State and Territory for it to take force.

2. What types of behaviours would be considered bullying?

Bullying can take many forms. The following types of behaviours, where repeated or occurring as part of a pattern of behaviour, could be considered bullying:

• Verbal abuse;

• Excluding or isolating employees;

• Physically threatening employees;

• Assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to the job;

• Interfering with a person's personal effects or work equipment;

• Giving employees impossible assignments;

• Deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience particular employees;

• Deliberately withholding information that is vital for effective work performance;

• Constant unfair criticism and criticising in front of others.

This list is indicative but not exhaustive, other types of behaviour may also constitute bullying.

3. What is meant by "repeated unreasonable behaviour"?

"Repeated Behaviour" behaviour is repeated where an established pattern is identified over a period of time. A single incident of bullying style behaviour does not constitute bullying. "Unreasonable behaviour" means behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would expect to humiliate, belittle or threaten. "Behaviour" includes actions of individuals or a group, and may involve using a system of work as a means of victimising, humiliating, undermining or threatening.

4. What is not considered bullying?

The following would not constitute bullying:

• Legitimate and reasonable disciplinary action;

• Legitimate and reasonable performance management including negative feedback;

• Legitimate and reasonable allocation of work in compliance with systems; and

• Organisational change and restructuring that is required for genuine operational reasons.

5. I manage a team of twelve employees, what are my responsibilities as a Manager to prevent and manage issues around bullying?

Managers not only have significant responsibility regarding matters relating to preventing and managing bullying but they also have the ability to influence. This means managers should;

• Model appropriate behaviour;

• Establish expectations of appropriate behaviour among your team and the consequences for failing to comply with appropriate behaviour guidelines;

• Encourage a positive and respectful workplace culture;

• Be familiar with and understand your organisation's workplace bullying policy;

• Understand your organisation's complaints and investigation procedures;

• Educate your team members on the workplace bullying policy and procedures;

• Ensure that you handle any allegations of workplace bullying, whether formal or informal in an appropriate manner;

• Ensure you, as a Manager, know where to get support should you have any questions or concerns regarding workplace bullying.

6. How can bullying be recognised?

Bullying can be hard to recognise. It can sometimes be confused with "firm management".

Bullying can occur at all levels. It is not just limited to cases where managers deliberately pick on their staff. It can exist between colleagues at the same level and staff can also engage, individually or collectively, in bullying their manager.

Bullying may not be obvious to others and the recipient may think that "it is normal behaviour in this organisation". They may be anxious that others consider them weak or simply "not up to the job" if they raise a complaint. Other work colleagues may be scared to support them for fear of retribution.

Managers should be alert to changes in behaviour which may indicate that a member of their team is being bullied. Increased absences from work, withdrawing from team activities, a drop in performance and reluctance to work with certain colleagues could all be signs that someone is being bullied.

This list is indicative but not exhaustive; bullying victims may display different signs or no obvious signs of their experience.

7. What should I do if an employee comes to me concerned that they may have been bullied?

You should consult the relevant Workplace Bullying Policy that applies to your organisation.

Most policies contain a recommendation an employee should:

• Inform the offender that the behaviour is offensive and unacceptable and against company policy;

• Alternatively the employee can raise their concerns confidentially with their Manager, Human Resource representative or workplace contact officer. This may involve making a report of a complaint.

If an employee is making a serious allegation, you should encourage them to make a formal written complaint for investigation, if the matter is less serious it may be appropriate to at first attempt to resolve the matter informally. If the employee does not want to make a complaint and you become aware of circumstances that could reasonably present a risk to employee health and safety you will have an obligation to act on that information regardless of whether a formal complaint is lodged by the employee concerned or not.

8. What is likely to happen to an employee if they are found to have bullied another team member?

Again, this may depend upon the content of your relevant Workplace Bullying Policy. Most policies contain statements to the effect that all forms of workplace discrimination, harassment or bullying are unacceptable behaviour which will not be tolerated. Accordingly, where such complaints have been substantiated, appropriate disciplinary action will usually be taken. Such action may range, based on the severity of the complaint, from a formal warning to termination of employment. Where the behaviour is unintentional it will often involve re-education / training.

9. I am in the process of performance managing one of my employees. My employee has refused to attend any further performance management meetings because she says she is being bullied. How should I approach this?

Legitimate and reasonable performance management is not bullying. You need to ensure that you are handling the performance management process in a reasonable manner which includes providing appropriate notice of any performance management meetings, allowing the team member to bring a support person to the meetings and ensuring the specifics of the performance management process occur in accordance with your organisation's relevant Performance Management Policy.

10. The word 'victimisation' is used a lot when talking about workplace bullying, but what does it actually mean?

Victimisation is when a person subjects or threatens to subject another person to any detriment because the other person, or someone associated with the other person, has made an allegation or complaint of discrimination, harassment or bullying.

11. I am currently involved in a formal complaints process with two of my employees. How can I ensure their wellbeing through the process?

It is important to acknowledge how stressful the situation is for both parties in a bullying complaint, in particular the effect of the person experiencing bullying. The effects on the person experiencing bullying can include:

• severe psychological distress, sleep disturbances and general feelings of anxiety;

• physical symptoms such as stomach-aches, headaches and general ill-health;

• incapacity to work, reduced output and performance; and

• loss of self confidence, self esteem and sometimes even suicidal behaviour.

You should ensure that both parties are offered access to your organisation's Employee Assistance Program and are always offered a support person for any interview.

An investigation process is stressful and confronting to all of the parties concerned and needs to be conducted in a manner that does not unnecessarily add to the stress the parties may be experiencing.

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