Bullying case studies

The following case studies provide examples of workplace bullying, its impact on an individual’s health and safety and examples of how employers failed to control the risk.


Bullying of one employee

M's story

M started his first job as an apprentice plumber at the age of 16. Two years into his apprenticeship, M made a complaint to WorkSafe about his experiences at work, which included:

  • his boss calling him gay and using offensive language towards him
  • his boss encouraging other employees to call him names, ask inappropriate questions and make crude insinuations about his personal life
  • his boss taking his mobile phone and making him believe he had posted inappropriate comments on a female friend's page
  • having a live mouse put down the back of his shirt by another employee
  • having his work shorts ripped up by his boss
  • having liquid nails squirted into his hair and face by fellow employees
  • being beaten with plumbing pipes and having hose connectors thrown at him by his boss and fellow employees
  • being spat on by employees
  • having a rag doused with methylated spirits held over his mouth by his boss

The impact on M's physical and mental health

For a long time, M felt too afraid of losing his job to complain to his boss about the treatment he was subjected to. However, he eventually became distressed to the point that he was afraid to go to work. He began experiencing nightmares, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, getting angry for no reason, tearfulness, depression, anxiety and stress.

M was eventually diagnosed with a psychological disorder which prevented him from being able to return to work with his employer.

Risk to health and safety

The bullying behaviour that M was subjected to at work impacted his health and safety and resulted in both physical and psychological injury. The employer failed to control that risk as it did not have a bullying policy, and did not provide proper supervision, information, instruction and training to its employees on workplace bullying.

Prosecution outcome

The employer in the actual case was found guilty of offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, and was convicted and fined $12,500.

Bullying of multiple employees

S, M, L and J's story

S, M, L and J were part of a group of employees at a commercial bakery where they were required to perform tasks including baking, sandwich preparation, general food preparation, cleaning and delivery of orders to local businesses.

They alleged they had been subjected to verbal, physical and emotional abuse by their employer over a period of two years. The abuse included:

  • being called 'pig', 'porky', 'dog' and other derogatory names by their boss
  • being sworn at, with their boss using foul and abusive language
  • their boss yelling and grunting at them for no apparent reason
  • having items such as sticks thrown at them or at their desks
  • their boss threatening them with physical harm, including being attacked by dogs and being dissolved in acid
  • having trolleys pushed into the backs of their legs
  • being labelled as 'useless' and 'a waste of space' by their boss
  • being told by their boss to 'go away and die, and make sure you die quietly'

The impact on the victims' physical and mental health

One of the women reported that as a result of the bullying, she had 'lost my friends, my life, my world and my mind'. Others reported that they suffered mental and physical distress, including depression and exacerbation of other psychological conditions. Some went on to suffer relationship breakdowns.

Risk to health and safety

The treatment S, M, L and J and their colleagues were subjected to at work created a risk to their health and safety and resulted in them suffering both physical and psychological injuries. The employer had no systems or procedures in place to regulate that workplace behaviour and no policies or procedures to educate employees in respect of appropriate workplace behaviour and workplace bullying.

Prosecution outcome

The employer in the actual case was found guilty of offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, and was convicted and fined $50,000.

Bullying of an employee by a manager

S's story

S is a teacher in the private sector and has 20 years of experience at the school. The school was going through a change management process. S made an application to the Fair Work Commission for an Order to Stop Bullying based on allegation which included:

  • The principal, M, allocating a business manager to conduct S's annual review despite the fact that the business manager had not conducted any other teacher's review, had no educational experience and had recently had unpleasant exchanges with S.
  • M entered a discussion between S and the pay clerk about S's long service leave request and, standing very close to S with clenched fists, said 'I have not signed off on it. You have to wait.' M was not actually dealing with the leave application.
  • On S's return from long service leave, S was directed to complete an induction program for new employees and was appointed a mentor with less experience than she had. S was the only employee to have to do the induction on return from leave and the only employee who was not new to be allocated a mentor.

The impact on S's physical and mental health

As a result of the behaviours, S felt isolated, targeted and demeaned in the workplace. S was also insulted, embarrassed and humiliated by being allocated a mentor and having to do the induction training in spite of her 20 years' experience. S felt so distressed because of the personal behaviour of the principal towards her that S saw her doctor and was given time off work.

Risk to health and safety

The treatment S was subjected to at work impacted on her health and safety and resulted in her suffering a psychological injury. The employer could have prevented this from occurring by:

  • ensuring the appropriate person conducted the annual review
  • training managers in how to interact professionally with employees
  • providing appropriate training to employees based on their experience in the job

Bullying of one employee by multiple colleagues

K's story

K was a police officer and was successful in being promoted into a new team. K made a common law claim for damages alleging she suffered injuries as a result of her employer's negligence. The behaviours that led to K suffering a mental injury allegedly included:

  • being given the worst desk normally reserved for temporary staff
  • being told that her supervisor thought she had slept with the boss to get the job
  • after announcing she was pregnant, the supervisor asked her if she had slept with the boss to get the job
  • the supervisor calling HR in front of her and asking if she could be replaced because she was pregnant
  • the supervisor told K that the only way he could get rid of her was if she voluntarily relinquished the job and asked if she was willing to do so
  • being called 'the black widow' by the supervisor when she walked into the room.
  • being socially ostracised by the team
  • having difficulty getting time off to look after her child post maternity leave when other people had no trouble getting time off to play golf
  • not being invited on a social club interstate trip
  • being shouted at when she questioned being left out of the social club interstate trip

The impact on K's physical and mental health

K went from being a fit and healthy young woman to being unable to work and suffering from depression, high anxiety and panic attacks.

Risk to health and safety

The treatment that K was subjected to at work impacted on her health and safety and resulted in her suffering a psychological injury. The employer could have prevented this from occurring by:

  • ensuring that appropriate supervision was provided under Section 21(2)(e) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004
  • providing appropriate training to its managers on how to handle maternity leave arrangements and post-maternity leave return to work
  • providing appropriate training to all employees about acceptable workplace behaviour

Employer duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks, the employer must reduce risks, so far as reasonably practicable.

The best approach to deal with risks to health and safety associated with workplace bullying is to implement appropriate measures in the workplace.

In line with their duty to eliminate and reduce risks to health, including psychological health, employers have a responsibility to identify hazards and assess associated risks that may lead to workplace bullying. As an employer, you must control any associated risks, review and, if necessary, revise risk control measures.

Related pages

This information is from 'Workplace bullying: A guide for employers'. The complete guide is available in two formats.

Website version PDF guide