Workplace Bullying – How to Identify and Stop It

Posted On

January 22, 2023

Posted By

Kylie Thomas

Workplace bullying can be subtle and insidious and it’s not always easy to know if it’s taking place under the radar.

Smaller businesses can suffer particularly badly from unaddressed bullying. Left unchecked, the cost of turnover, absenteeism, lost productivity, and damage to the business’s culture and reputation can all be very costly.

What is bullying?

The Fair Work Commission defines bullying at work as:

  • a person or group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards another worker or group of workers
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

They go on further to say that examples of bullying include:

  • behaving aggressively towards others
  • teasing or playing practical jokes
  • pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
  • excluding someone from work-related events
  • unreasonable work demands.

Whilst these are helpful in determining if reported behaviour constitutes bullying, it’s useful to consider how, as an employer, you can keep an eye on workplace behaviours and stamp out bullying before it creates problems within your business. Even with the increase in remote working, bullying still takes place in online meetings, digital communications and on the phone. It may in fact just make it more difficult to spot.

What sorts of behaviours should I be watching for?

Persistent teasing or humiliation

If one staff member is often the focal point of jokes or teasing, even when it might seem in good fun to others, it should be addressed early. It is rarely fun for the person on the receiving end of the ‘jokes’.

Passive-aggressive comments or insults

Like the above, singling someone out with comments or insults, even when they don’t seem outwardly aggressive, can still be considered bullying.

Constant unfair criticism or blame

Behaviour that induces feeling of guilt or shame, scapegoating, or expressing unfair or undue criticism is rarely justifiable. Watch for blame being levelled at one person where a team is more likely responsible.

Taking credit for another employee’s work

Outwardly taking credit for someone’s work, failing to give appropriate praise as would have been done for others, or diminishing the work that was done, can all add up to a hostile work environment.

Isolation or exclusion

The adult version of primary school bullying is still hurtful and demeaning. Excluding someone deliberately from meetings, discussions or work-related activities, or purposely not inviting them to after hours social events, is definitely something to watch for.

Undermining, and making impossible deadlines or demands

Reasonable management expectations are not, of course, bullying, however creating situations where a staff member is expected to achieve the unachievable is considered bullying. Failing to give the staff member the requirements to do what’s expected of them, or demanding work well outside of their skill sets is likely to be considered unfair.

Intimidating, hostile, aggressive verbal or nonverbal communication

The most recognisable forms of bullying tend to be around aggression, intimidation, and hostility. These can take place on the shop floor, in the office or even online, however they rarely take place in front of management. Any obvious forms of aggressive behaviour should be dealt with immediately.

What are some ways to proactively discourage bullying?

  • Encourage people to speak up – make sure your staff know they will be taken seriously.
  • Education – Educate staff and managers on what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Managers need to be aware of their responsibilities for detecting and addressing bullying.
  • Recognise changes in employee relationships – Keep an eye on who’s spending time together, or working together, and any changes to that over time.
  • Speak with staff whose performance or attendance is not up to standard – There may be something going on that you’re not aware of, that may shed some light on their performance.
  • Handle complaints quickly and fairly – Ensure your meetings are conducted fairly and without judgement. Be empathetic and seek help from a professional if you’re unsure of how to handle the situation.
  • Keep appropriate records – Keeping unbiased records of names, dates and discussions is important. Document actions, follow ups, and suggestions, and stay in touch with both parties as time goes on.
  • Review bullying and harassment policies – Make sure that your business has an appropriate policy in place, that outlines procedures for affected staff. Review these policies regularly and update as necessary.
  • Conduct exit interviews – Staff that are leaving are a valuable source of information, particularly around inappropriate staff behaviour.

Bullying in the workplace can have a seriously detrimental impact on the mental health of your staff, and even open the door to litigation. Communication is key to avoiding unacceptable behaviour and having an open-door policy not only encourages your staff to keep you informed of issues, but discourages bullies from detrimental behaviour in the first place.

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