Understanding Employment Law: What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is a prevalent and problematic issue in Australia, but luckily there are many options for employees affected. Workplace bullying can be found in any industry or position, but McDonald Murhome lawyers state that industries particularly affected include healthcare, education, childcare, and not-for-profits.

Bullying in the workplace costs Australian organisations between $6 billion to $36 billion in claims per year and can have serious health and wellbeing impacts on employees. Thankfully, with the well-established Fair Work Act, numerous local state and territory bodies, and experienced workplace bullying lawyers, employees have many options for ensuring a safe work environment.

Recognising Workplace Bullying

According to the Fair Work Act, workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour aimed at a worker or group of workers, causing a risk to health and safety. This can include many kinds of behaviour such as verbal, physical, social, or psychological abuse. Examples include:

  • Hazing
  • Exclusion
  • Teasing/nicknames
  • Humiliation
  • Unjustified criticism
  • Physical violence

Often, workplace bullying can be a tactic to push a worker to resign due to interpersonal or business reasons, rather than offering a legal redundancy.

It’s important to remember that workplace bullying can happen to any kind of employee, including student interns and volunteers, and all kinds of workers have legal rights when it comes to addressing bullying in their work environment.

While workplace bullying can take multiple forms, there are also legal definitions for what is not bullying. Criticism of job performance within reasonable limits and monitoring work quality are not examples of bullying. This can sometimes be subjective in the eyes of the law, but generally, it comes down to the question ‘would a reasonable person see the behaviour as unreasonable?’

It is also important to know the difference between bullying and discrimination. Discrimination is an adverse action in response to a protected trait in the workplace (race, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc). Discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace are covered by different laws and protections. Legally, bullying isn’t necessarily related to an individual’s characteristics or protected traits and does not have to result in an adverse action.

To correctly identify workplace bullying and seek out strategies to address it, it can be a good idea to seek out a lawyer to understand the law that applies to your case.

Understanding causes and outcomes

According to Beyond Blue, workplace bullying is not, in fact, an individual issue but is caused by “poor organisational culture, poor leadership/management styles, and an unhealthy work environment”.

The impacts of workplace bullying can hit hard on a personal level. Bullying can adversely impact mental health in a number of ways including causing distress and panic attacks, loss of self-esteem, and increased risk of suicide. Bullying at the workplace can also impact an individual’s confidence, enthusiasm, and trust at work, and also affect their relationships outside of work. This, in turn, impacts the workplace by reducing productivity and hiring and retention rates.

What are your rights?

Figuring out how to stop bullying in the workplace can seem overwhelming if you don’t feel supported or listened to. It’s important to remember that you have a right to work in an environment free of bullying, and that if your employer has failed to manage the risk of workplace bullying they may be breaching Work Health and Safety laws.

The first step in reporting bullying is to document the behaviour you are experiencing, and to inform yourself of your options:

  • What routes for reporting and addressing bullying are there in your workplace?
  • What local bodies are available for reporting the issue?
  • What laws and protections apply to your situation?

It can be a good idea to hire a lawyer to explain your options or to check over your bullying complaint, to ensure you are utilising all your available legal remedies, and to support you in cases where company lawyers and resources are involved. 


Workplace bullying is ongoing, unreasonable behaviour directed toward a worker or group of workers, and can have serious impacts on an individual and company-wide level. But it does not have to be endured. Understanding the legal options available to you is the first step in addressing the unwelcome behaviour and asserting your right to a safe, respectful work environment.

Anzhela Sychyk

Anzhela is a seasoned business journalist with a keen eye for spotting industry trends and a knack for explaining complex financial concepts in a clear and accessible way. With over 15 years of experience covering the world of finance and economics, Anzhela has established herself as a respected authority on all things business.