Date posted: 16/12/2019 10 min read

No-one likes a bully, but what if someone says you’re one?

Here’s what you should do if you’re bullied at work, or are accused of bullying yourself.

In Brief

  • Bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety.
  • It is estimated that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between A$6-36 billion per year due to lost productivity.
  • There are steps you can take whether you are being bullied or accused of bullying yourself.

By Fiona Smith

As children, we were often told to ignore bullies. “Just walk away and, eventually, they’ll get bored and leave you alone,” we were told. But this tactic frequently failed in the schoolyard and, at work, ignoring a bully can be a disaster.

Confronting the issue of bullying head-on takes courage, whether or not you’re directly involved. Hoping it will go away, or that someone else will take responsibility, can cause further harm to people and the organisation.

What constitutes bullying?

workplace bullying

The legal definition of bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety. And as workplace lawyer Josh Bornstein points out, there are many ways to make someone miserable at work.

“It can involve any sort of behaviour of being mean to another human being,” says Bornstein, a partner at Maurice Blackburn in Melbourne.

“If I go to work one day in my office with 30 other colleagues and I say hello to everybody except one person, on the first day that’s not bullying. If I do that for a week, that one person will start to get very unhappy. If I do that for the next two weeks, they’ll start getting anxious. After a month of the same treatment, they’ll be unwell,” he says. This tactic of exclusion is like a slow infusion of troll poison.

“Bullying can vary enormously. It can involve very small things; it can involve violence. It can involve door slamming, screaming, spitting, white-anting, all sorts of behaviours. It can also be very Machiavellian and subtle,” says Bornstein.

“Bullying can involve door slamming, screaming, spitting, white-anting, all sorts of behaviours. It can also be very Machiavellian and subtle.”
Josh Bornstein, Maurice Blackburn

A widespread problem

In a 2015 Safe Work Australia study, 9.4% of workers said they had experienced workplace bullying in the previous six months. The most common forms of harassment were yelling or being sworn at (37%) and being humiliated in front of others (23%).

The prevalence of bullying in New Zealand seems to be even higher, with 12.2% of workers targeted with at least two negative behaviours each week over six months, according to 2018 New Zealand Workplace Barometer research by Massey University.

Auckland-based HR executive Fiona Michel says New Zealand is recognising that is has a violence problem, particularly with family violence.

Fiona MichelPicture: Fiona Michel.

“We’ve topped the world on more than one occasion in terms of the statistics on that. With alcohol abuse, poverty, homelessness, you know, there’s a lot of things going on here,” says Michel, who is chief people officer at the Vector energy company and also on the board of the Australian Human Resources Institute.

“Of course that is going to play out in the workplace. We would be foolish to think that workplace bullying is in any way isolated from the wider societal problems that we’ve got,” she explains.

“Workplace bullying is a cultural issue. It’s not, typically, an evil human being.”
In the professional services sector, bullying rates have been declining, says Alec Bashinsky, a former long-time Asia-Pacific regional talent leader at Deloitte and board member of the Diversity Council Australia.

Employees realise they do not have to tolerate bullying, he says, and are calling out bad behaviour. But by no means has the problem gone away. “The professional services industry is very high on IQ, but average on EQ [emotional quotient],” Bashinsky observes.

Psychologist and anti-bullying expert Evelyn Field OAM says bullying incurs a high cost. “If a target has a moderate injury, they’ll take a few months off, move somewhere else or return to work,” she says.

“So we are talking about retraining costs, rehiring costs, WorkCover, Medicare… right apart from all the disengagement, the lack of concentration, fraud, costly mistakes and everything else.

“If they are severely injured, that means that they won’t work for one or two years. By that stage, 95% won’t work again.

“That becomes very expensive in terms of the damage to human beings, and damage to the organisation and the society that trained them.”

And the costs add up. The Productivity Commission estimates bullying drains A$6 billion to A$36 billion per year from the Australian economy due to lost productivity.

Is it bullying or constructive feedback?

Confusion about the difference between bullying and reasonable direction by managers means that most complaints that make it to the human resources staff turn out not to be bullying at all, says Bashinsky.

Performance feedback, for instance, can sometimes trouble younger people. Some interpret a critique as bullying and this can create a lot of work for HR departments, he says.

Perception also plays a role. Behaviour that is accepted or shrugged off by some may be deeply wounding to others.

“In my experience, 95% to 99% of the accusations are false – and that is just in the environments I have worked in,” says Bashinsky, who is now managing partner of Blackhall & Pearl Talent Services. “It’s probably one of the most time-consuming things that HR does.”

While that rate of false claims seems extraordinarily high, it does not surprise anti-bullying advocate Bornstein. “That may be right,” he says.

This does not mean that claims of bullying should be treated with scepticism. If someone feels they have been targeted, there is a problem, even if it does not seem to fit the legal definition of bullying. Something may have gone wrong in the delivery of feedback, so perhaps some management or interpersonal skills training is required.

Defending a bullying complaint has become an unpleasant part of the job for many managers – unsurprising when there are so many complaints dismissed at an early stage of investigation.

“I can tell you, every leader in their career, male or female, would have had an issue raised against them in some shape or form. I’ve had one in my career, I know most CEOs have… everybody,” Bashinsky says.

“Because, whenever you’re responsible for a team of people, you will have someone, rightly or wrongly, raise an issue against you. So the first scenario there is not to overreact. It’s to deal with the facts. It’s to understand what the outcomes are.”

What can organisations do about bullying?

To create a safe workplace, Michel says organisations should work on the culture. Relying on policies and procedures is like “putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”, she says.

Bashinsky says anti-bullying training should start at the induction process for newcomers. There also needs to be good, strong communications from the CEO and executive team about what values the organisation stands for and what it won’t tolerate.

“They also need to be clear about what the organisation will do if bullying occurs,” he adds.

Rather than policies, Bashinsky suggests having “guidelines” that include examples of what bullying is and what it isn’t. He also recommends twice-yearly, half-day sessions on bullying and harassment for all leaders.

Training in soft skills should be offered to help people improve their interactions, deal with conflict and give feedback. If someone is accused of bullying, they should be helped to improve with coaching and training.

How to protect yourself from being a target of bullying

If you find yourself the target of a bully, you have to deal with your immediate situation, while deciding on your course of action. The first step is to look after your own wellbeing.

Psychologist Field says targets have to find productive ways to deal with their anger, fear and vulnerability.

Stay neutral, logical and unemotional in your dealing with the bully. Make sure you are social at work with colleagues. Be seen, and foster relationships with people who have power.

“The more you are seen as having lots of connections, the less likely you are to be targeted,” Field says.

Look after your physical health, with diet and sleep, and find ways to decrease your stress hormones. “If you run up 10 flights of stairs, there is no way you can be as angry or anxious. If you laugh through two hilarious movies or sitcoms, your anxiety will be less,” advises Field.

If you feel comfortable having a courageous conversation with the bully, you should use a non-blaming approach, such as: “I seem to be doing something that is annoying you, but I’m not sure what it is. Can we talk about it?”

Targets should also challenge their own belief systems, to test whether they are asking too much from the workplace.

“Some people believe work should be a Utopia,” Field observes, so she suggests asking people around you for their opinions on whether you are being treated unreasonably or if you’re simply expecting too much from your workplace.

You can also talk to your manager or another senior person (if your manager is part of the problem), your health and safety representative, employee assistance service or the human resources (HR) department.

A formal, written complaint to HR should trigger an investigation, carried out by an external investigator. 

Taking the complaint further

If the bullying is not solved at work, it may be time to get outside help. In New Zealand, people can take their complaints to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA). However, they should have tried to resolve the issue with their employer beforehand, says HR leader Michel.

“It’s not unheard of for somebody to use a lawyer as the first port of call, but if the lawyer or advocate is any good, they will generally refer you back to working with the organisation,” she says.

“It really only goes to the ERA if the business can’t resolve it.” And if complainants are unhappy with the outcome, they can take the matter to the Employment Court.
In Australia, employers have strong incentives to try to solve bullying issues before they face reputational damage in the Fair Work Tribunal, says Bornstein.

“Employers separate people, they restructure, put in their own investigator to conduct their own investigation, and all sorts of things to make sure the bullying stops. So that means the tribunal, in most cases, is not going to grant an order,” he says.

What makes a bully?

People who bully are often unaware of the impact their behaviour is having on others says Field, noting that only about 1% of the population are psychopaths who really don’t care about other people.

Bashinsky adds that bullies often lack self-awareness and that their poor behaviour often emerges during times of stress. Alternatively, they may have a “smug or sarcastic” manner.

“They think they are being witty and intelligent, but their commentary and their behaviour actually becomes a form of bullying,” he says.

He points out that the vast majority of leaders will change their behaviour after a substantiated complaint. In most organisations, the process of dealing with a bullying complaint involves a system of warnings to the person about their behaviour, says Bashinsky.

“You don’t just throw them under a bus. But if it’s repeated behaviour, then you have to make a decision around that.”

Usually, by the time someone receives their second warning, it dawns upon them that they have a problem. “There is a career consequence,” says Bashinsky.

Why witnesses to bullying are important, too

Field says bystanders are also affected by working in an environment where someone is being bullied and it is important to seek their perspective when dealing with complaints.

“Bystanders are more accurate in their reporting of bullying than the bully or their target,” she says.

If you are a witness, you should check in with the target to see how they are, advises HR leader Michel. “Put your energy into them.”

She says if ground rules and norms of behaviour for the organisation have been agreed to beforehand, it is much easier to call out transgressions.

“If you have nothing to latch onto, it is incredibly scary to approach someone you believe to be a bully,” says Michel.

What to do if you’re bullied at work

1. Gather information.

For each incident, keep records of: the date, time and where it occurred what happened (who was present, what was said, who said what), if there were any witnesses, how you felt.

2. Seek advice and support.

Talk to a trusted person to get a “sense check” about whether you are experiencing unreasonable behaviour. Get advice from managers, health and safety representatives, your union, employee assistance program or a psychologist, and human resources team. You can have a support person at meetings.

3. Resolve it yourself.

Talk about it with the other person if you feel comfortable doing so.

4. Report behaviour to the business.

Your employers should have a process to deal with complaints and may run an investigation.

5. Make a formal, written complaint.

This should trigger a formal investigation, undertaken by independent investigators.

6. Legal action.

In Australia, employees can get an order from the Fair Work Commission to stop the bullying and the first step is mediation. In New Zealand, complainants can request free mediation through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Employment Mediation Services, or go to the and Employment Court.

Sources: Safe Work Australia, WorkSafe New Zealand

What to do if you’re accused of bullying?

If you are accused of workplace bullying:

1. You should be informed as soon as possible after a complaint has been received.

2. You could also be the subject of a formal investigation.

3. You should expect to be notified about:

  • the details of the complaint and who made it
  • the process and your rights (including the right to have a support person present)
  • the requirement for confidentiality and non-victimisation
  • the possible consequences
  • expectations of behaviour during any investigation
  • interim measures to ensure the safety and welfare of the complainant during an investigation. These may include your suspension pending the outcome of any investigation, or reassignment to other duties until any investigation is complete.

4. You should consider what has been said, and how the person making the complaint about you may be feeling and thinking to have made this complaint.

5. You can seek advice and support from others, such as managers, colleagues, health and safety representatives, your union, community law centre, employee assistance program, helplines, a psychologist, or the human resources team.

Source: WorkSafe New Zealand