How to Respond to Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Feb 24, 2021
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Written by Dominic Woolrych

Key points

  • Workplace bullying and harassment are extremely common, and more so in the age of social media
  • Employers should have adequate processes in place to prevent and respond to incidents of bullying and/or harassment
  • Legal action can also be taken by employees under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).


Not many people can say that they have never been the victim of bullying in some form or another. Be it in the playground or the school, the university cafe, or even the office boardroom, everyone has at some stage witnessed or been subjected to bullying. Social media and moves towards gender and racial equality has led to a conscious effort by employers, parents, victims and also support groups to rid Australian corporate culture of entrenched bullying. There is now a progression by governments to support the anti-bullying movement, spreading the message that bullying and harassment are not socially acceptable, and that it will not be tolerated.

What constitutes bullying or harassment?

Workplace bullying and harassment can take many forms. Bullying actions (whether in the physical or online world) can include:

  • Jokes, nicknames and also innuendos with unkind undertones
  • Comments and mean or lewd remarks
  • Purposeful exclusion (i.e. from work events or lunches)
  • Aggressive, violent or menacing behaviour
  • Unreasonable work demands

Harassment is any behaviour that is unwanted. This includes bullying, but extends into harassment that is physical, verbal, sexual and psychological.

Building a supportive workplace culture

Preventing workplace bullying and harassment requires employers to build a culture where this behaviour is not tolerated. Here’s some ways you can start to develop this culture:

1. Encourage employees to speak up

Many employees feel they cannot speak up if something bad is happening at work. Further, encourage employees to share their experiences with each other. This will inspire an honest and open work culture.

2. Be there for your employees

Make sure employees get the message that you’ll be there to support them if they have any issues. Be the kind of employer your employees will feel comfortable turning to in times of need.

3. Take proper action against bullies

Many companies have an outward anti-bullying stance, but fail to take real action against bullies. Incidents of bullying should be raised directly with the bully. You should also conduct a thorough investigation where you:

  • Listen to both sides of the story
  • Assess evidence
  • Speak with any witnesses
  • Make an impartial decision on how to proceed

Gather all the evidence, no matter how trivial you think it may be. Speak with witnesses in a professional manner in a relaxing environment. Assure them that they are part of the collective action to stop bullying in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to take disciplinary action – you can start by issuing a formal warning. Further, you can proceed to termination if the bullying or harassing behaviour does not stop.

4. Have the right policies in place

Developing robust policies and procedures is also a must. The most important policies to have are:

These policies need to be clear, definitive and also binding. Employees should receive copies of these policies when they commence employment so they understand your rules and standards from the get-go.

Moving forward

After the dust has settled, you should take the necessary time to continue to support the affected employee. Understand that the mental health of your employees is just as important as their physical wellbeing. Facilitating counselling sessions may also go a long way in your employee recovering from the trauma that bullying inflicts. Reinforce to your employees their obligations in terms of their behaviours, words and also attitudes in the workplace. You can also take this as an opportunity to review and modify your strategies you put in place to ensure that the incident never occurs again. Combatting workplace bullying will potentially be the hardest thing you’ll ever need to do as an employer and the hardest thing your employee may face. Despite this, taking action is essential as your business will suffer in the long-term if a bullying culture persists.

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