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5. Preventing bullying at work

Workplace bullying is more than simply an interpersonal conflict—it can be a systemic problem that arises in the context of a poor workplace culture.1 It is best dealt with by taking steps to prevent workplace bullying long before it undermines individuals’ well-being or workplace relationships, or becomes a risk to health and safety2—and the most effective way to do this is by fostering a culture in which bullying behaviour is unlikely to thrive. All members of a workplace, including managers, play a role in preventing and managing bullying at work.

Why it matters

Workplace bullying has significant effects on those directly experiencing or witnessing the bullying, as well as their families, the work team and the organisation.

Employers have a clear legal obligation under work health and safety legislation to eliminate risks associated with workplace bullying as far as is reasonably practicable. This can be achieved through quality people management practices and specific workplace bullying strategies.

How it’s done

Workplace bullying can be the result of a range of individual and organisational factors, including a work culture or environment that permits inappropriate behaviour to occur, managers with poor people management skills, a lack of supportive leadership, and workplace stressors and risks. 3

  • Be proactive in communicating standards of expected behaviour.
  • Create a workplace where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
  • Design appropriate, realistic systems of work.
  • Develop productive, respectful working relationships.
  • Follow the organisation’s policy and processes if standards of expected behaviour are not met.

Promote a positive workplace culture.

Identify and model the behaviours that you need in your team. This will help you to create a work culture based on respect, where bullying is not tolerated. If there is bullying in your team or organisation, seek to understand its causes and impact in the context of the broader workplace culture.

Identify and call bullying behaviours early.

If bullying does occur, it is important to recognise this behaviour and act on it early. This will help to maintain a culture where bullying is not tolerated.

Your agency should have a policy to help you to address any bullying that occurs. When an incident of bullying does occur you may be required to notify Comcare of the incident. Details of when you need to notify Comcare are on the Comcare website.

Some people might be unaware that their behaviour might amount to bullying. It may be useful to have a conversation with the employee about their behaviour and its impact on colleagues. This will probably be a sensitive and difficult conversation and you might need to talk with your human resource team for advice on how to have the conversation. In some cases you might want a member of your human resource team to be there during the conversation.

Manage workplace stressors and risks.

Role conflict and uncertainty can sometimes lead to bullying behaviours due to the stress it places on employees. It is important to ensure that employees understand their roles and have the appropriate skills to do their job. This will help to minimise work circumstances that could lead to bullying, and can also help to minimise the risk of employees’ perceiving difference of opinion or management action as bullying.

Provide regular and respectful performance feedback.

Managers have a broad range of responsibilities including monitoring workflow and providing feedback to employees on their work and performance. When feedback is provided properly, with the intention of assisting the employee to improve their performance or behaviour, it is not bullying.4

To prevent performance management being perceived as bullying, it is important to focus on high quality, respectful, and regular performance feedback.

Sound workplace policies can serve as a preventative tool to tackle bullying.

The policy should be a clear statement of the standards of behaviour that are expected and the processes to follow if these are not met.

Minimise the impact of bullying on the team.

Bullying can affect employees who witness it, as well as those who experience it directly. Each employee will react differently to bullying behaviours. Reactions may include distress, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, impaired concentration at work, low self-esteem, or reduced work performance.

Employees who witness bullying behaviours may feel angry, unhappy or stressed about the work culture, or feel guilty because they know that the behaviour is wrong but feel unable or afraid to stop it.

It is important to recognise and respond to early warning signs of employees who have been affected by bullying and support them to seek help.

Bullying is repeated behaviour that could reasonably be considered to be humiliating, intimidating, threatening or demeaning.

Bullying can be direct or indirect, and inflicted by one person or groups.

A single incident generally does not constitute bullying.

Bullying behaviour is not always intentional and some people may not realise that their behaviour is perceived as bullying behaviour that is harmful to others’.

Comcare, Workplace Bullying, Don’t be a silent witness & Respect:Promoting a culture free from harassment and bullying in the APS, Commonwealth of Australia, 2011 (4th ed.)

‘I was sent to work as an advisor to a very senior manager who no-one else was willing to work for. My former boss knew this person was difficult to work for, and that the agency was considering whether his behavior breached the Code of Conduct. I ended up being diagnosed with a mental health condition as a result of the way I was treated, and have spent the past twelve months in and out of hospital.’
David, an APS employee

Useful tools

  • Workplace bullying – don’t be a silent witness. See www.comcare.gov.au
  • Comcare, Preventing and managing bullying at work . See www.comcare.gov.au
  • Respect: Promoting a culture free from harassment and bullying in the APS. Commonwealth of Australia, 2011 (4th ed.)

Other relevant information sheets:

1 Dr Carlo Caponecchia, Workplace Bullying, House of Representatives, Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Committee Hansard, Canberra, 23 August 2012, p.3.

2 Safe Work Australia 2011, Draft Code of Practice: Managing the Risk of Workplace Bullying, SWA, Canberra, p 7.

3 Comcare 2010, Preventing and managing bullying at work – a guide for employers, Comcare, Canberra, p. 5.

4 ibid., p. 7.

Last reviewed: 
8 June 2018