It is now a year since the Fair Work Commission gained new powers to hear workplace bullying complaints. Although employers have always had an obligation to provide a workplace that is free from bullying under Work Health and Safety legislation, this is the first time the Fair Work Commission has had any responsibility for resolving these matters.

The risk to business is not just that of a claim being made to the Commission. The Productivity Commission has estimated the total cost of workplace bullying in Australia to be between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.

The number of bullying complaints to work health safety regulators is also increasing – around 5,000 to 6,000 complaints a year are made in New South Wales and Victoria respectively.

It is also clear that the number of bullying-related workers’ compensation claims (often for psychological injury) is rising. Safe Work Australia reports a 70% increase in the number of national workers’ compensation claims for bullying over the last three years. In fact, in the very first month that the new legislation came into effect (January 2014) there were:

  • 44 applications received
  • 28,049 unique hits to the FWC website seeking information.
    Source: The Fair Work Commission

What is bullying at work?

In the Fair Work Act, bullying at work occurs when:

  • a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work, and
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.
Examples of bullying behaviour extracted from the FWC Anti-workplace Bullying Guide include the following:

  • Aggressive or intimidating conduct
  • Belittling or humiliating comments
  • Displaying offensive material or pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Unreasonable work expectations
  • Exclusion from work-related events
  • Teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation ceremonies’
  • Unreasonable work expectations, including too much or too little work, or work below or beyond a worker’s skill level.

Remember the behaviour must also be repeated, unreasonable and create a risk to health and safety. For example, one practical joke may not be bullying, but if only one person is repeatedly targeted, day in day out then this may be considered bullying.

How can you reduce the risk of bullying in your workplace?

There are a number of measures employers can take:

  • Implement processes to identify workplace bullying or the potential for it (i.e. risk assessment and hazard identification).
  • Ensure appropriate preventative and response measures are in place, such as a clear workplace bullying policy and a complaint management and investigation processes (and ensure these are well communicated).
  • Train managers and supervisors so that they can effectively respond to complaints of bullying.
  • Take preventative measures by, for example, promoting a positive workplace culture and respectful working relationships, training managers and supervisors so they can better manage performance and conduct issues in the workplace.
  • Provide access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).
  • Consult with workers in relation to bullying (this is a requirement of the Work Health Safety Act).
  • Monitor and review the effectiveness of the above measures.

If you’d like some guidance or need a sounding board please email me at Alternatively, visit my website where you’ll find my Top 5 Essential Tips.