10 tips to tackle workplace bullying

Jan 05, 2016

Workplace bullying is a serious issue and a major risk factor for anxiety and depression. Employers have a duty of care under work health and safety legislation to provide a safe working environment - and that includes banishing bullying.

Although bullying is often seen as an individual issue, research suggests organisational culture is a significant influencing factor. As well as focusing broadly on creating a more mentally healthy workplace, the following tips can provide a framework to help you ensure your workplace is a bully-free zone.

1. Learn to identify bullying

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk of health and safety. Bullying at work can take a range of forms, many of which may not be obvious or overt. Examples may include repeated hurtful remarks or verbal attacks by colleagues or managers; excessive criticism; any form of physical harassment such as pushing or threat of bodily harm; social exclusion from the team; and the spreading of malicious rumours or misinformation. 

A single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered to be workplace bullying however it may have the potential to escalate and should not be ignored.

2. Set a zero-tolerance approach

Employers should develop a workplace bullying policy that establishes guidelines for employees to lodge complaints and have their claims investigated, as well as a clear process to resolve disputes through conciliation. This could be a stand-alone policy or incorporated into a broader workplace health and safety code of conduct document, and should ideally outline the consequences of breaching the policy.

3. Consult with your workers

Consistent dialogue with your employees helps identify bullying behaviour within the workplace, empowering them by providing a forum to have a say about policies and procedures that best suit the business. This may include open meetings with all staff, management meetings with health and safety representatives on behalf of staff, or anonymous feedback.

4. Promote an open-door policy

Encouraging employees to approach managers or HR to discuss bullying behaviour will help to ease the reluctance of people who have been bullied to come forward. You can effectively communicate this to employees through newsletters, staff meetings, communications around the office, or in-house or online training sessions.

5. Be an effective leader

A reluctance to address bullying issues within the workplace can be a factor in allowing negative behaviour to exist and sometimes flourish. Focus on developing a positive leadership style by providing training for managers and supervisors to communicate effectively with staff.  Providing constructive feedback to staff, building teamwork skills, mentoring poorly performing managers and making sure all supervisors act on unreasonable behaviour immediately are all ways to ensure bullying has no place in your business.

6. Identify the signs of bullying

Even if you have a sound structure to deal with workplace bullying, some employees may be reluctant to speak up. Someone being bullied at work may:

  • be less socially active or confident
  • appear to be scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
  • be absent more often or less productive
  • display physical signs of stress such as headaches, backaches and not getting enough sleep.

7. Seek the source

Bullying in the workplace isn’t always immediately visible. Employers should be aware that while bullying can happen face-to-face within the workspace, it can also occur via email, text message, social media and instant messaging.

8. Watch out for those most at risk

According to statistics from Safe Work Australia, some workers are more susceptible to bullying. Being mindful of the more vulnerable among your staff may help to identify and prevent bullying.

These include:

  • casual workers
  • young workers including apprentices and trainees
  • new employees
  • injured workers and those on return-to-work plans
  • people who are part of a minority group because of ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual identities.

9. Scale back on stress

Bullying is more likely to occur in stressful work environments. Consult with line managers and take steps to ensure staff workloads are monitored and manageable.

10. Review your success

A policy is only as good as its implementation and uptake. Think about how you’ll monitor your progress. The ways in which bullying claims are handled, levels of sick leave, and gauging staff morale and engagement through consultation, surveys or exit interviews are all good indicators.

More information on bullying and ways to prevent bullying from occurring in the workplace can be found on the Further reading page of the Heads Up website.

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