workplace bullying and harassment

Campaigns such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have brought sexual harassment and discrimination within the workplace to the foreground. While employers should have robust policies in place to prevent bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment, they have to be proactive by addressing all complaints, taking prompt action where necessary, providing education and training, and most importantly, leading by example.

Everyone has a right not to be bullied or harassed at work and there are national anti-bullying laws and state or territory health and safety bodies that help with bullying and harassment issues in the workplace. Research by the University of South Australia has shown that when compared to 31 European countries, Australia ranked sixth highest in workplace bullying. Workplace bullying can have a devastating impact on victims, as well as seriously affecting economic factors for companies experiencing increased absenteeism, decreased productivity and higher staff turnover.  

Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by an employer, manager or another person or group at work, and can affect anyone, in any career, at any level, within any organisation, at any time.

The Australian Workplace Commission defines bullying and harassment as occurring when a person or a group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers and the behaviour creates a risk to workplace health and safety. 

Bullying behaviour includes any types of the following:

aggressive or intimidating conduct

belittling or humiliating comments

spreading malicious rumours

teasing, practical jokes

exclusion from work-related events

unreasonable work explanations, including too much work or too little work or work below or beyond a worker’s skill level

displaying offensive material

pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner.

The key attributes that constitute bullying are that the action must be repeated, and that it must create a risk to workplace health and safety – including mental health. The Fair Work Commission can only make an order if there is a risk the worker will continue to be bullied.

However, when a manager makes a reasonable decision about poor performance, takes disciplinary action, and directs the way work is to be carried out, this is not bullying.

Bullying is now taken more seriously within the Australian legal system, with judgements handed down against employers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even up to ten years imprisonment in Victoria for serious bullying. The incentives for anti-bullying policies to be implemented and enforced within the workplace have never been greater.  For more information, please visit the anti-bullying pages of the Fair Work Commission’s website.

communicating your policies

With many organisations now having bullying and harassment policies and strategies in place, the focus needs to be on communicating these effectively with employees. Randstad’s own research found that one in five Australian workers have personally experienced harassment and/or discrimination at work over the past two years, while 60% support their organisation taking action to create a workplace which is diverse and inclusive. Businesses now need to better communicate their strategies to foster a climate of inclusion and drive diverse thinking among staff.

sexual harassment

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. 

With technology blurring the lines between what is considered the ‘workplace’, employers may not be comfortable dealing with harassment that has occurred outside the more traditional work areas such as offices and work parties. Emails, mobile devices, and social media channels have increased possible avenues for communication, but not all employers have clear policies that cover these areas.  

Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, work colleague or any other person in a working relationship with the victim. Both employer and employee should know how to identify sexual harassment, and how to raise or handle a complaint.  

Sexual harassment takes many different forms. Whether the harassment is verbal or physical, repeated or a one-off, or perpetrated by males or females against others of the same or opposite sex, sexual harassment at work is against the law. It can include: 

unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against another person or unwelcome touching

suggestive comments or jokes

insults or taunts of a sexual nature

intrusive questions or statements about another person’s private life

displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of a sexual nature

sending sexually explicit emails or text messages

requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates

behaviour that may also be considered to be an offence under criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications.

Employers need to ensure they are keeping up with changes within the workplace, and in the ways that harassment may occur. Fostering a strong anti-harassment culture through clear policies and procedures, on-going education and training, and a leadership team that is committed to endorsing those policies and attending all training sessions are key factors in helping to reduce harassment and bullying in the workplace. 

With many organisations still coming to grips with defining clear guidelines on establishing a workplace that champions diversity and inclusion, managers will struggle to deal with bullying. Randstad’s own research found that 60% of Australian workers support their organisation taking action to create a workplace which is diverse and inclusive. This is backed up by the claim that one in five workers have personally experienced harassment and/or discrimination at work over the past two years. The research also found that organisations need to better define their strategy, putting in place clear channels of communications to foster inclusion and drive diverse thinking.

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