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The Beat Up on Workplace Bullying

By Claire Mansell - 4 Feb 2013

There is increasing awareness of workplace bullying and the effect it has on employees.  Bullying can be a difficult issue for both employers and employees.  What one person may see as 'tough management' another may view as bullying. 
What is Workplace Bullying?

Defining workplace bullying can be difficult.  It is easy to see how behaviour such as hitting, yelling or threats can constitute bullying, however, many allegations of bullying involve insidious behaviour, such as constant criticism without foundation, stonewalling ideas or ignoring the victim. 

The Courts have given some guidance to the types of behaviour which constitute bullying, such as:

  • Behaviour which intentionally intimidates or gains dominance over the victim; and
  • An ongoing or a distinct pattern of bullying behaviour - isolated incidents are less likely to constitute bullying.

It is also important to consider the social context in which the alleged bullying occurs.

What to do if workplace bullying is going on?

Employers have an active duty to protect employees from workplace bullying.

Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, an employer has a duty to provide a safe working environment. This includes safety from "a situation where a person's behaviour may be an actual or potential cause or source of harm to the person or another person".  Harm includes stress and anxiety which may be caused by bullying. 

If an employer becomes aware of a potential bullying situation or complaint, they will need to act quickly. The first step is to investigate the complaint or incident.  Keep an open mind about the complaint.  Many employers fall into the trap of rationalizing the potential bully's behaviour or treating the employee as a "troublemaker". Alternatively, sometimes complaints of bullying are made to side-track or stonewall performance management of the employee making the complaint. No two situations are ever the same.

Once the complaint is investigated, employers will need to determine whether the behaviour constitutes bullying. Often, what one employee views as bullying may instead be a personality clash. 

If the bullying is established, the employer will need to determine how best to deal with the situation. It pays to remember that once "outed" bullies often seek to find more subtle ways to bully the victim which are not so detectable.

It is important to keep the complainant employee up to date with progress.  Not knowing what (if anything), the employer is doing about the situation can mean added stress and anxiety for the employee (which can lead to a successful personal grievance claim). 

Victims of workplace bullying should make their employer aware of the situation.  Once the employer becomes aware of the complaint, they have a duty to act upon it. But if they do not know about it, they are unlikely to be held liable for it.


Claire Mansell


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