Responding to workplace bullying

Employers need to act promptly and appropriately when dealing with incidents of workplace bullying. Guidance on this page provides information and strategies to help intervene, investigate and respond to workplace bullying.

On this page

  • Workplace bullying definition
  • Employer duties
  • Workplace bullying early intervention
  • When and how to investigate workplace bullying
  • Strategies to consider

Workplace bullying definition

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety.

Employer duties

As an employer, you have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to provide and maintain for your employees, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This duty includes providing and maintaining systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health.

Because there can be a risk of workplace bullying wherever people work together, you, as an employer, should put in place all of the measures outlined in this section to control the risk. There is limited evidence to show interventions after bullying has occurred are effective. Prevention is the key to creating a safe working environment.

When fully put into effect, the measures on this page can help you eliminate or reduce the risk of workplace bullying at your workplace. You must involve employees in the consultation process, as well as their health and safety representatives (HSRs), if there are any.

Act promptly and deal with problems

Like other risks to occupational health and safety (OHS), workplace bullying is best managed by dealing with it as soon as an employer is aware there is a problem. An employer's failure to prevent or address workplace bullying will most likely contribute to a working environment that creates a risk to health and safety by demonstrating that bullying is an accepted behaviour in the workplace.

Act promptly. Employers should take action as soon as they become aware of behaviours that may be workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying may be raised with an employer in a number of ways, including:

  • a written or verbal report
  • directly observing behaviour
  • an HSR raising an issue for a member of their designated work groups (DWG) or the whole DWG
  • a workers' compensation claim being made
  • being told about an individual using an early intervention approach
  • feedback from consultation and monitoring

Respond effectively

Effectively responding to issues can stop the situation happening again and reinforce the message to employees that you deal with workplace bullying seriously. Effective response involves selecting an approach to deal with the issue, either through early intervention or a formal investigation.

Early intervention usually suits situations where behaviour may have just occurred or has not escalated. Use formal investigation procedures for serious allegations.

Intervention should, where possible, focus on establishing appropriate behaviour and preventing inappropriate behaviour, including addressing potential work environment concerns.

Workplace bullying early intervention

Early intervention is a way of solving an issue without a formal report or investigation. Early intervention is possible through an individual self-managing a situation or seeking help from someone else to raise the issue.

Training plays an important role in the early intervention of workplace bullying. Employers should ensure employees are trained to recognise bullying behaviour and to adjust their behaviour accordingly before it becomes an issue.

Steps an individual can take against workplace bullying

Self-management is an option to initially address workplace bullying and should only take place if the individual who experiences the behaviour is confident and safe to do so. It involves the individual who experiences the behaviour directly telling the other person the behaviour is not welcome and should not happen again. A formal report may be made if the behaviour continues or gets worse.

If an individual does not feel confident enough to manage a situation, they can raise the issue with another person, including:

  • a supervisor or manager
  • the other employee's supervisor or manager
  • an HSR
  • human resources department
  • the workplace contact officer, if any. Some workplaces have nominated contact officers who help employees experiencing discrimination and harassment in the workplace

Anyone asked to act on behalf of an individual should use a confidential and non-confrontational approach when discussing the issue.

Supervisors, line managers and early intervention

Supervisors and managers should immediately intervene in issues they directly observe in the workplace or if a member of their team asks them to intervene. A supervisor or manager who approaches an individual directly about their behaviour should record the action taken. Supervisors should be trained in how and when it is appropriate to escalate an issue.

Supervisors and managers should provide support and assistance to all employees involved in a case of workplace bullying, including potential complainants and respondents, witnesses and bystanders. Managers should also ensure they seek any support or assistance they require.

HSRs and early intervention

HSRs can raise issues on behalf of their DWG. They can also advise members of their DWG on how to approach an issue. HSRs are not responsible for resolving the matter.

Intervention by witnesses

Witnesses taking action is an effective strategy that provides the earliest possible intervention against workplace bullying. Witnesses can intervene in bullying behaviour but only when they feel safe to do so.

All employees should have received training in how to intervene in bullying behaviour, such as by verbally discouraging the bullying behaviours without taking sides. Employee training should build skills, including practising brief responses and anonymously reporting the behaviour to the employer if it does not cease. Employers should advise employees who witness and intervene in bullying behaviour that they will receive support.

When and how to investigate workplace bullying

The aim of an investigation is to look into the circumstances of the matter and work out what has occurred. Workplace bullying reports of a serious or complex nature should always be investigated. Serious bullying reports may include those:

  • covering a long period of time
  • involving multiple employees
  • where the alleged behaviours are in dispute
  • involving alleged bullying by senior managers
  • where other processes have not been able to resolve the matter

Once it has been determined that an investigation will be undertaken, the employer should decide on the scope and process including:

  • who will conduct the investigation
  • details of the behaviour that will be investigated
  • how the investigation will be conducted and likely timeframes
  • what the investigation aims to achieve
  • what support needs to be provided to the parties involved
  • how outcomes of the investigation will be communicated

How to investigate

Appoint an impartial and experienced internal or external person with knowledge about how to deal with such matters. The investigator should be someone who is neutral to all parties involved. The investigator should:

  • set the scope of the investigation by describing the allegations to be tested
  • set the process. For example, who will be interviewed, when and how long it should take
  • provide recommendations on actions required to address the situation

Use an experienced external investigator to undertake the investigation in any of these situations:

  • there is no suitably skilled person available at the workplace
  • a suitably skilled person has a conflict of interest
  • the nature of the allegation is serious
  • the complaint is against a person in a high level of management

The person conducting the investigation should:

  • treat all matters being investigated seriously and confidentially
  • examine matters impartially and in a timely way
  • allow appropriate time for the investigation
  • speak to the complainant and any alleged respondents
  • identify and speak to all relevant witnesses
  • inform everyone involved of the possible investigation results and outcomes
  • assess reports on their merits and facts
  • hear parties separately because versions of what allegedly happened may differ
  • record the facts surrounding the matter
  • clarify how all parties involved in the investigation will receive the investigation report

Principles to be applied in a workplace bullying investigation

To ensure the investigation process takes place in a fair, objective and timely way, it is important to observe the following points for each person involved in the investigation.

The complainant

Make sure the complainant:

  • is fully informed about the investigation process and possible outcomes
  • has an opportunity to seek independent advice and representation
  • is given time and assistance to set out the complaint/s and supporting material
  • has their confidentiality maintained
  • is informed how they can seek a review of a decision
  • is provided with support and assistance

The respondent

Make sure the respondent:

  • is fully informed of all allegations against them
  • is fully informed about the investigation process and possible outcomes, for example, disciplinary action
  • has an opportunity to seek independent advice and representation
  • is given full opportunity to reply to the complaint/s
  • has their confidentiality maintained
  • is informed how they can seek a review of a decision
  • is provided with support and assistance

Witnesses, bystanders, supervisors and managers

Make sure witnesses, bystanders, supervisors and managers:

  • are informed about the investigation process
  • have an opportunity to seek independent advice and representation
  • are given time and assistance to provide supporting material where they wish to
  • have their confidentiality maintained
  • are provided with support and assistance

Investigation outcomes

The investigation report

At the end of an investigation, the person investigating should submit an objective report that:

  • describes the allegations/what was reported
  • describes the investigation processes
  • outlines all relevant evidence, including who was interviewed
  • concludes, on the balance of probabilities, whether workplace bullying is likely to have occurred

The report should be acted on and its key findings communicated in a sensitive way to the complainant and respondent.

Where an investigation has taken place, the report should recommend actions to finalise the matter and include suggested improvements for the response procedure for the future.

If workplace bullying is not proven

In some circumstances, an investigation may find that workplace bullying did not occur. The report should still recommend further actions to address the situation, such as mediation, counselling or changing working arrangements. Mediation is a voluntary process where an impartial third party, preferably a trained mediator, helps the parties put their respective cases before each other. The role of a mediator is to help both parties understand each other's perspective and to try to find an agreement the parties are willing to abide.

Where appropriate, communicate recommendations to relevant people, for example, the complainant, the respondent and other relevant parties.

Where appropriate, communicate recommendations for improvements to HSRs, if there are any, the OHS committee and employees.

Dealing with false reports

Complaints that are not true and made to cause harm or distress are known as vexatious or malicious complaints. If a report of bullying is found to be vexatious or malicious, disciplinary action or counselling may be considered against the person who made the report. Any action taken should be consistent with the organisation's policies on misconduct and disciplinary action.

Strategies to consider

The options used to resolve a report of bullying will vary according to the nature of the situation and should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The list below outlines actions to address complaints.

Note: These actions can be combined and applied at both the individual and organisational level.

Some action may still be necessary even if allegations of workplace bullying are not proven. It is important to note that longer-term interventions are encouraged to achieve sustainable change.

Organisational level

  • awareness sessions on appropriate workplace values and standards
  • training sessions with follow-up coaching sessions. For example, sessions in communication skills, conflict management, interpersonal skills, respectful behaviours and bystander intervention. The sessions can be for one person, a workgroup or section or organisation-wide
  • ongoing monitoring of the affected work group
  • review the workplace policy with employees and managers or workgroups
  • review the workplace prevention measures
  • review workplace procedures and improve the process in consultation with employees

Individual level

  • direct an employee to stop the behaviour
  • invite an apology
  • individual training
  • provide mediation or another dispute resolution process
  • coach, counsel and/or mentor an employee/employees
  • use disciplinary action subject to workplace relations laws. Employers may need to seek advice before proceeding with disciplinary action
  • provide support or assistance. Cards at the bottom of this page link to resources which can help you deal with workplace bullying.