Performance review or bullying: Have you crossed a line when addressing your staff’s workplace performance?

When does an assessment of workplace performance become bullying? Depending on the circumstances, the difference between the two can be difficult to determine – and there is fine line that, if crossed, can lead to costly litigation and court fees.

From HR practitioners and those in leadership roles, performance management is a key part of their function. Managing under-performing employees can be a complex and time-consuming process, made all the more complicated when the employee involved misinterprets the situation as being harassment or bullying.

Lander & Rogers Partner Julian Riekert, believes there are two clear strategies that HR professionals should pursue when engaging in performance management process, to minimise the chances of receiving a bullying claim after undertaking what they believed to be reasonable management action.

“First, you need to identify the poor performance that you’re trying to remedy, and second, you need to address it using a structured and well-prepared process,” Riekert says.

“Identifying the reasons behind an employee’s underperformance and then assessing the problem are absolutely vital in preparing to have a conversation with the employee about it. You need to discuss concrete examples that highlight the employee’s underperformance – it is not enough to simply say, for example, that they’re not as productive as their colleagues or that they’re not a team player.”

Incidents of workplace bullying often occur in the context of a manager or supervisor addressing the workplace performance of a subordinate, which can serve to blur the lines between appropriate performance management and bullying. A response to workplace performance can easily be interpreted as a case of bullying, if managers and supervisors are not careful in the way they give feedback.
Workplace bullying in this context can include micro-management, constantly changing work expectations, or being yelled at or put down in front of other colleagues.

It is important that managers are aware of what constitutes a workplace performance review, and what can be seen as bullying. However it is also essential that managers remember their obligations towards taking appropriate management action when necessary. They need to be able to effectively direct and control the way work is carried out, respond to poor performance and, if necessary, take disciplinary action. Not addressing poor workplace performance can have a negative impact on workplace culture, leading to reduced productivity, high staff turnover, poor morale and litigation.

An appropriate management action can include performance appraisals, meetings to address underperformance, or counselling an employee for misconduct. Whatever the method, it is essential that all management action be carried out in a reasonable and balanced way – something that can be difficult to achieve when the situated has escalated and the staff involved have heightened emotions.


To this end, iHR Australia has developed ‘Managing Everyday Performance’, a full-day workshop designed to assist in the development of competence and confidence in effectively managing staff performance within the workplace. In this course we identify leadership behaviour most effective in encouraging high workplace performance. We also provide advice on management approaches to dealing with workplace underperformance.

This workshop aims to instil within managers and supervisors a clear understanding of the importance and practice of good performance management within the workplace, with a focus on the following:

• What effective performance management is and why it is imperative in the modern workplace;
• How to create a high performance culture through effective application of expectation setting, empowerment, evaluation, rewards and feedback;
• Techniques to conduct effective everyday performance conversations and give feedback to staff that is fair, accurate and consistent with the expectations of workplace law;
• How to prioritise fairness and accuracy when managing performance and maintaining consistency between all elements of the performance management process;
• How to apply relevant processes in managing poor performance dependent on your organisational procedures, including employee termination; and
• Requirements related to documenting and recording performance issues.