Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Bullying and harassment harms the physical and mental health of workers. It is a serious health and safety issue that must be managed and prevented by employers.

Everyone should feel safe and supported at work. To help protect yourself from this health risk, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what bullying and harassment is.  

What is workplace bullying?

The Fair Work Act (s 789FD) defines bullying as repeated unreasonable behaviour towards a worker (or group of workers) which creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying consists of a broad spectrum of repeated unreasonable behaviour, which might include:

  • Shouting
  • Threats
  • Being subjected to teasing, humiliation, belittlement, mocking or sarcasm
  • Being singled out, ganged up on or excluded (ostracised)
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Making unreasonable demands
  • Deliberately making someone feel uncomfortable
  • Excessive surveillance or micromanagement

Bullying behaviour can occur inside or outside of working hours.  Whether a behaviour is unreasonable can depend on whether a reasonable person might see the behaviour as unreasonable in the circumstances.

The Fair Work Act does not prevent employers from taking reasonable management actions, which might include: 

  • Managing your performance
  • Issuing reasonable and lawful instructions about your work
  • Offering constructive criticism
  • Investigating a disciplinary matter

However, these actions may constitute bullying behaviour if they are taken in an unreasonable manner. For example, if they are designed to threaten, intimidate or harass you.

Similarly, some level of disagreement can occur within the workplace without being bullying. However, if workplace conflicts become common events and play out in a way that unfairly targets or victimises one person or a group of people, then this may count as bullying.

Seek the advice of your union or contact the Australian Unions Support Centre  if you have questions or concerns about bullying in your workplace.

What is workplace harassment?

Harassment involves a similar range of behaviours to bullying but may or may not be ongoing.  Safe Work Australia defines harassment as: “unwelcome behaviour that intimidates, offends or humiliates a person”.

What can I do if I am being bullied or harassed at work?

Being bullied or harassed at work can make you less confident, less capable and more stressed while you are at work. It can also affect your private life, making you feel anxious, irritable and reluctant to return to work. 

You’re not alone, and there are things you can do about it. 

Write it down

Start writing down incidents of bullying or harassment as they happen. Creating a diary record of what happens can be useful later if you need to provide evidence about what has been happening, and for how long – especially since you may not always remember things as clearly a few days, weeks or months later.

You should capture the following information:

  • The date of the incident, including what might have happened beforehand and afterwards;
  • Where did the incident take place?
  • Who was there, were there any witnesses (this includes people who may have seen the bullying or harassment or anything that happened before or afterwards)?
  • What was said, and by whom;
  • What happened?
  • Why do you feel that what was said or done was bullying, harassment or sexual harassment?
  • How did you feel after the incident?

Writing down the details of any incident is really important, but depending on what’s happening, you may also want to take other steps.

Tell someone

Speak to someone you trust at your work about what is happening.

This can either be a colleague you are close to, your Health and Safety Representative or your union delegate, or organiser.

Approach the person

If you feel confident, you can approach the bully/harasser and tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and unwanted. If you are not sure about the best way of doing this, get advice from your union delegate or organiser.  Do not approach the bully/harasser if you feel it could endanger your safety in any way.

Make an internal complaint

If the bullying or harassment continues or if you don’t feel comfortable approaching the bully/harasser yourself, you should make a complaint to your manager. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your manager about the issue, especially if they are the bully/harasser, you can speak to your Health and Safety Representative, your union delegate or the Australian Unions Support Centre to help you work out the best person to make a complaint to.

Your employer has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment that is free from bullying and harassment. If your manager does not act to stop the bullying, your union can help you work out what to do next.

Make an external complaint

Depending on the nature of the bullying or harassment, there a range of external places you can go to for assistance. Your first port of call should be your union, which can provide you with assistance and representation throughout this process. 

If bullying cannot be resolved at the workplace, an application may be made under the Fair Work Act (s 789FC) to the Fair Work Commission for a stop bullying order. 

Contact the Australian Unions Support Centre  if you need assistance connecting with a union.

Note – If you feel that you are in immediate danger, call the police on 000.

Enter your email to access our expert workplace information

Almost two million union members have contributed to us providing this free workplace factsheet. Because you’ve read a few of our factsheets, we’re asking for your email address to keep reading. This is so we can keep you updated with the latest news and workplace advice.

Don’t worry: our factsheets will always remain free, thanks to the solidarity of the union movement.

View our Privacy Policy