Workplace bullying and the law

Workplace bullying is a serious risk to employees' health and safety and can occur in any workplace.


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.

What is workplace bullying?

Examples of workplace bullying include repeated:

  • verbal abuse. For example, being sworn at, threatened, insulted, continual inappropriate and/or invalid criticism, name calling, practical jokes, unjustified threats of punishment, belittling and humiliation, gossip and malicious rumours, inappropriate language, yelling
  • hostile behaviour toward a staff member or group. For example, excluding them from conversations or various activities
  • abusive or offensive e-mails or other correspondence
  • threatening body language
  • unreasonable demands, unnecessary pressure and impossible deadlines which are targeted at an individual or group of individuals
  • unfair allocation of tasks and/or working hours. For example, repeatedly requiring a particular person to stay back after hours or rostering them onto night duty
  • deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience an employee
  • undermining a person's work performance, recognition or position, especially with their managers or co-workers
  • deliberately withholding necessary work-related information or resources or supplying incorrect information
  • inappropriate surveillance or monitoring
  • inappropriate interference with personal belongings or work equipment
  • unequal or unreasonable exclusion from or access to training
  • unequal application of work rules and benefits
  • unreasonably excluding employees from activities
  • unreasonably isolating an employee from others
  • setting tasks that are above or beyond a person’s skill level without access to training or support

What isn't workplace bullying?

Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying. Examples of reasonable management actions may include:

  • genuine and reasonable instructions
  • setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • rostering and allocating working hours, where the requirements are reasonable
  • transferring a worker for genuine operational reasons
  • informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process is followed and documented
  • making organisational changes or restructuring, with consultation
  • constructive comments which are objective and indicate observable deficiencies in performance or conduct
  • constructively delivered feedback or counselling intended to help employees to improve their work performance or the standard of their behaviour
  • reasonable grievances
  • justified termination of employment

Causes of bullying

Work-related factors, also known as psychosocial hazards, are anything in the management or design of work that increases the risk of work-related stress. A number of work-related factors can increase the risk of workplace bullying if they are not addressed, including:

Presence of work stressors

  • high job demands
  • limited job control
  • organisational change, such as restructuring or significant technological change
  • role conflict and ambiguity
  • job insecurity
  • an acceptance of unreasonable workplace behaviours or lack of behavioural standards, and
  • unreasonable expectations of clients or customers

Leadership styles

  • autocratic behaviour that is strict and directive and does not allow employees to be involved in decision making
  • behaviour where little or no guidance is provided to employees or responsibilities are inappropriately and informally delegated to subordinates,
  • abusive and demeaning behaviour that may include inappropriate or derogatory language, or malicious criticism and feedback

Systems of work

  • lack of resources
  • lack of training
  • inappropriate work scheduling, shift work and poorly designed rostering, and
  • unreasonable performance measures or timeframes

Poor workplace relationships

  • poor communication
  • isolation
  • low levels of support
  • work group hostility

Workforce characteristics

Groups of employees that may be more at risk of being exposed to workplace bullying can include:

  • young workers
  • apprentices/trainees
  • employees in a minority group because of ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual preferences
  • casual workers
  • new workers
  • injured employees and employees on return to work plans
  • piece workers
  • volunteers, work experience students and interns

Impact of bullying

Workplace bullying can impact people in a number of ways, including:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  • physical illness, such as muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems
  • reduced work performance
  • increased absenteeism
  • loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation
  • changes in eating habits
  • higher risk of illness
  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
  • increased risk of suicide
  • depression
  • increased risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide plans, and suicide attempts
  • long-term anxiety disorders
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • poor general health
  • self-destructive behaviour, including self-harm
  • substance abuse
  • difficulty establishing trusting, reciprocal friendships and relationships

Consultation with employees

Occupational health and safety (OHS) law requires employers to consult with employees who are or who are likely to be directly affected by a health and safety matter. Consultation must involve the employees' health and safety representative(HSR), if the workplace has an HSR.

Consultation is required when:

  • identifying or assessing hazards or risks at a workplace, including the risk of workplace bullying
  • making decisions about the measures to control the risks to health and safety
  • making decisions about procedures for resolving health or safety issues
  • providing information and training
  • proposing changes that may affect the health and safety of employees

Consultation can help you implement preventative measures and raise awareness in the workforce. Effective consultation can improve workplace culture and reduce the risk of bullying as well as other inappropriate behaviours that have an impact on health and safety.

Consultation must include sharing information, giving employees a reasonable opportunity to express their views and taking those views into account before making decisions on work health and safety matters that directly affect the employees.

Consultation gives employees input in developing workplace bullying policies and procedures best suited to the needs of the business or undertaking. Effective consultation can also help raise awareness of workplace bullying. Businesses, particularly small businesses with limited resources, may choose to engage external specialists to help with their consultation processes. The WorkSafe Advisory Services can also help. You'll find information about the WorkSafe Advisory service at the bottom of this page, along with cards linking to organisations which can help with workplace bullying.

Bullying can have multiple offenders

A bullying incident can involve multiple offenders, including:

  • an employee or group of employees
  • the employer
  • an employee manager or supervisor

A person, through their bullying behaviour, may be guilty of an offence under the OHS Act. However, the employer and other individuals may have breached the OHS Act by their failure to take action against bullying behaviour. For example:

  • the employer has failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health associated with bullying or as a result of failing to respond to bullying behaviour
  • an employee, including a manager or supervisor, has acted in a way that fails to take reasonable care for the health and safety of others at a workplace

Related pages

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

Website version PDF guide