Advice for employees experiencing bullying in the workplace

Bullying at Work Segal Conflict Solutions

While it seems that in today’s socially conscious world, many progressive organisations are trying their best to eradicate bullying and are moving towards adopting zero-tolerance policies towards bullying, bullying still appears to be pervasive in Australian workplaces.

As a workplace mediator and investigator, I often come across situations where bullying is clearly present in a workplace yet has not been reported to the organisation. There are various reasons for this, and probably the most typical is that the employee is fearful that if they do report it, things will worsen for them, not improve, or they are fearful that it could jeopardise their position in the organisation. Another reason is that the employee has no idea that the behaviour they are experiencing actually amounts to bullying. Other reasons include not knowing whom to report it to or how to go about reporting it, or maybe the employee is hoping that if they ignore it, ultimately it will go away (which is rarely the case).


What is workplace bullying?

Bullying at work is when a person/a group of people repeatedly act unreasonably towards an employee/group of employees, and their behaviour creates a risk to the employees/s health and safety.

Workplace bullying occurs in many forms including face-to-face, on the phone, email, social media, or via texts. It can happen to volunteers, work experience students, interns, apprentices, casual and permanent employees.


Some examples of bullying at work:

  • insulting, abusive or offensive language or comments;
  • spreading rumours, gossip or innuendo;
  • threatening phone calls or text messages;
  • physical abuse like pushing, hitting, grabbing;
  • unjustified criticism or complaints;
  • teasing, practical jokes or initiation practices;
  • giving you meaningless tasks or constantly overloading you with work;
  • sexual harassment, such as unwelcome touching and sexually explicit comments and requests that make you uncomfortable


Effects of bullying

There are serious mental health issues that commonly arise from bullying such as depression, exhaustion, suicidal thoughts. Of course, these effects have a knock-on effect on the organisation in terms of sick leave, less productive employees and a higher turnover of employees.


What is not workplace bullying

Not all behaviour which an employee believes is unfair or makes an employee feel upset or undervalued is workplace bullying.

Your employer can:

  • give you feedback on your performance, in a reasonable way;
  • discipline, counsel, retrench or dismiss you (if they are acting reasonably and per your employment contract)
  • occasional isolated incidents in the workplace, for example, if someone loses their temper or shouts or swears;
  • Differences of opinion and disagreements are also not generally regarded as workplace bullying. However, it’s important to note that when conflict is not managed effectively, it may escalate to the point where it becomes workplace bullying.


What is your employer’s responsibility re bullying?

Employers have a duty of care for their employee’s health and wellbeing while at work. An employer that allows bullying to occur in the workplace is not meeting this responsibility.


Do bystanders have a responsibility? 

Everyone has a moral responsibility to help create a positive, safe workplace.  If someone in your workplace is experiencing bullying or harassment, you are encouraged to provide them with support and assistance.


Steps to follow if you are being bullied at work:

  1. Get your hands on your company’s bullying policy and complaints procedure which should outline how your organisation will respond to workplace bullying.


  1. If you feel safe and comfortable to do so, calmly tell the other person that you object to their behaviour and tell them they need to stop it immediately. It is possible that they have no idea the impact their behaviour is having on you, and your feedback on their behaviour may give them the opportunity to change their actions. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable to do this, you can ask someone else to be in the meeting with you such as a trusted work colleague.


  1. If you are unsure how to approach this person or if you are uncertain whether the behaviour you have been experiencing is workplace bullying, contact your manager directly (if they aren’t the person bullying you which is a typical scenario) or someone more senior than them in your team. You could also speak to a health and safety representative, or someone in the HR department. Do this as early as possible.


  1. You need to lodge a written report or complaint to your employer about the bullying as per the workplace policies and procedures. It is then up to the organisation to deal with and manage your complaint effectively.


  1. Keep a diary to record all incidents of the bullying. Documenting everything that happens, including what you’ve done to try to stop it. It’s essential to retain all evidence which will back up your claims which can include letters, emails, screenshots of social media posts or texts.


  1. Consider whether anyone else has witnessed the bullying and approach them to see if they will support you during this process.


More formal steps if bullying not resolved

If you believe your employer hasn’t taken sufficient action, then it may be time to consider seeking help outside of your organisation.

  1. Apply to the Fair Work Commission for a stop-bullying order which is an option for you if the national law covers you on bullying.
  2. If the bullying is discriminatory because it is based on a particular personal characteristic such as sexual orientation, disability, race, age etc. you can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission or your state or territory anti-discrimination body.
  3. If a bully has threatened you or physically or sexually assaulted you, you can report this to police.
  4. If the bullying involved physical or mental harm and you had to take time off, you may be able to claim workers’ compensation.
  5. Other options:
    1. If you belong to a union, you can talk to them to see if they will assist.
    2. Get legal advice to explore your rights.


Links to organisations you might find useful:






Saranne Segal is the Director of Segal Mediation Group in Sydney Australia. She is a workplace mediation and investigation expert and has worked as a lawyer previously.