Australia: Is the word bullying being overused in the workplace?

There is no doubt that workplace bullying can be a serious matter for employees and employers. It can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety for employees as well as physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, migraines and obesity. Bullying in the workplace also has detrimental effects for employers as it can lead to increased absenteeism, lower productivity and the erosion of team morale. This is estimated to cost Australian companies between $6 billion and $36 billion each year.

As an employment lawyer, I have noticed recently that the term "bullying" is being used rather loosely to describe a range of interactions in the workplace. Often, "bullying" is used simply to describe an experience that a person does not like, whether it be rude behaviour or being told to do something by their boss, rather than actually meeting the ordinary or legal definition of the word.

So, with that in mind, what is, and is not, workplace bullying?

What is workplace bullying?

I see constant references to alleged bullying in Fair Work matters. Our clients also frequently face workers compensation claims where an employee has alleged a psychiatric injury due to "bullying".

Many employees and employers do not appreciate that the reasonableness of workplace behaviour, and whether it constitutes bullying, is judged objectively rather than being based only on an individual's own subjective perception of the situation. The Fair Work Commission has consistently held that there cannot be a finding of workplace bullying based solely on an employee's subjective belief that they have been bullied.

Common examples of behaviour that are workplace bullying include:

  • Using abusive, insulting or offensive language towards another person
  • Deliberately excluding another worker from workplace activities
  • Aggressive or intimidating conduct
  • Playing malicious practical jokes
  • Spreading rumours

What is not workplace bullying?

Unfortunately, the term bullying in the workplace seems to be increasingly used to describe behaviour a person does not like or that they feel is an infringement of their rights (when in fact it is not). A manager providing feedback to an employee critical of their work? I'm being bullied. HR investigating an allegation against an employee of misconduct? Yep, also bullying.

Except, it's not.

Employers need to be able to exercise their rights and obligations to give their employees directions in relation to their work and manage poor performance. Reasonable management action carried out by a manager in a reasonable manner is not workplace bullying.

For instance, if an employee is not meeting their KPI's or is not completing work to meet deadlines, a manager has every right to provide feedback (in a reasonable manner) to that employee to address their underperformance. Unfortunately, for certain types of employees this falls into the category of "behaviour I do not like", so they will often react and claim that this management action is bullying. Employers and managers should not be disheartened, as they are not "bullying", but simply performing their role.

Final thoughts

Employers and managers should not avoid giving critical feedback to their staff out of fear of being subjected to a bullying complaint. An employee's subjective belief that they have been bullied is not enough to make a finding that workplace bullying has occurred. The Fair Work Act recognises that employers and managers are entitled to perform reasonable management action in a reasonable manner. A key factor in managing complaints of bullying, and the overuse of the term bullying, is educating employees by having a workplace policy that provides clear examples of what is, and is not, workplace bullying.

Employees should avoid using "bullying" as a synonym for "behaviour I do not like". This loose use of the term "bullying" detracts from actual instances of workplace bullying and waters down the true, very serious meaning of the word.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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