Chapter 1 Workplace bullying: we just want it to stop
Bullying undermines the victim's deepest sense of self, of
who they are. As adults we think we have figured out who we are, and so to have
that completely undermined and stripped away is utterly crippling and that is
why it is so destructive.
Bullying is the key workplace health and safety issue of
our time. It can affect anyone in any job, regardless of what task they
perform, what kind of people they work with, or of what industry they are part.
These issues are not easy and they need to be tackled head on, rather than
ignored until they become so unbearable for people that they cannot face going
The significance of workplace bullying
To most Australians, work provides a sense of dignity and is central to
our individual and collective sense of identity. The value of work is not
simply that a very large part of life is spent working, nor that work is the
primary means to gaining a livelihood, and therefore ensuring material survival.
Rather, work has a more complex meaning interwoven in the creation of a sense
The significance of work is also larger than its meaning to the
individual. Work plays a critical role in the constitution of a society as the
interdependence of citizens through their work, is one of the most important
structural bonds of any community. 
Workplace bullying can therefore disturb both the individual and social
conceptions of self and value. Workplace bullying is a dynamic and complex
phenomenon and its causes are often multifaceted and its impact individual and
varied. It can have a profound effect on all aspects of a person’s health as well
as their work and family life, undermining self-esteem, productivity and
morale. For some it can result in a permanent departure from the labour market
and in extreme cases, suicide.
Bullying behaviours might range from subtle actions that seek to
exclude, isolate or marginalise, to extreme acts of physical violence resulting
in death or serious injury. Yet it is common for many targets of this behaviour
to struggle to identify these encounters as bullying. Frequently, it is only
when they seek the guidance or support of others that they identify that their
experience is causing damage to, or creates a great risk to, their health and
Unfortunately, there are illusory distinctions between physical and
psychological workplace hazards or injuries. Psychological injuries in
particular, are often seen as ‘soft issues’, as the sole responsibility of the
individual, or stigmatised as ‘craziness’. Such hazards can be seen as too
‘variable’ to manage the risk created. 
Workplace bullying experts, Dr Carlo Caponecchia and Dr Anne Wyatt
There is also the fear that taking action to prevent and
control psychological hazards will unleash a flood of similar complaints, and
ultimately end in litigation, finger pointing and threatened careers. These
perceptions are baseless, inadequate [and] irresponsible. 
Indeed, like other triggers of stress, physical and emotional responses
to workplace bullying are diverse. The Australian community should not dismiss
workplace bullying as a ‘grey area’ or relegate it to the too-hard basket.
Preventing and managing bullying is a challenge, but it is a challenge that if met,
will reap benefits for all workers and organisations. 
This inquiry arose out of increasing national attention on the
prevalence of bullying in Australian workplaces. The Committee has sought to
understand the experience, prevalence and cost of workplace bullying.
The experience of workplace bullying
The Australian Institute of Employment Rights observed that for an
increasing number of Australians, their experience of work and treatment within
the workplace is a negative one. The International Labour
Organisation (ILO) describes workplace bullying as a form of psychological
violence. The ILO argues:
Workplace bullying constitutes offensive behaviour through
vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual
or groups of employees. Such persistently negative attacks on their personal
and professional performance are typically unpredictable, irrational and
According to Davidson Trahaire Corpsych (DTC), a leading organisational
psychology consulting firm, the most common form of workplace bullying is
verbal abuse: shouting, swearing, malicious sarcasm, intimidating behaviours
and undeserved evaluations.
Examples of bullying include:
- abusive, insulting or
offensive language or comments;
- undue criticism;
- excluding, isolating
or marginalising a person form normal work activities;
information that is vital for effective work performance;
overloading a person with work or not providing enough work;
- setting unreasonable
timelines or constantly changing deadlines;
- setting tasks that
are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level;
- denying access to
information, supervision, consultation or resources such that it has a detriment
to the worker;
misinformation or malicious rumours;
- changing work
arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to the detriment of a worker or
treatment in relation to accessing workplace entitlements such as leave or
Bullying can also manifest in more predatory activities. In a case that
gained national attention in 2006, Brodie Panlock, a 19 year old waitress,
tragically took her own life after enduring persistent and vicious bullying at
work. Evidence raised in the resulting court case revealed that Brodie had been
the subject of continual physical and emotional abuse. In one of the more
horrific incidents, Brodie was physically restrained whilst her manager, and
cafe owner, poured oil over her. Mrs Rae Panlock, Brodie’s mother commented on
her daughter’s experience:
She was a very strong person. I think I have said it a few
times, but she used to soldier on and get over whatever was going on. But the
impact was just too much. It was not just one person; it was four men: the
owner and three individuals. They just kept on pursuing her. This is the other
thing. The people who worked there other than these men did try but did not try
enough. A lot of them said in the court case they wished they had done more.
Recent advances in technology and greater social engagement in the
online world are also extending the work environment into the private sphere of
workers. Mirroring the phenomenon
occurring in schools, workplace bullying is beginning to occur through online
technologies,  casting doubt on the
ability and responsibility of employers to respond to all these behaviours.
Further, bullying may manifest in different ways according to the nature
of certain industries. For example, ‘initiation ceremonies’ are more likely to
occur in certain sectors or amongst workers of a certain age. A recent case in
New South Wales was successfully prosecuted after five workers wrapped a 16‐year‐old asthmatic apprentice-labourer
in cling wrap. These workers then forced sawdust into his mouth as part of an
‘induction’ into the workplace.
Although the Committee heard numerous personal accounts of psychological
bullying in the workplace, there are no Australian examples of these cases pursued
in the courts. The cases pursued in the courts are physical, rather than
For example, the Committee heard of psychologically abusive group
behaviour, known as ‘mobbing’. The intent of ‘mobbing’ is
usually to try to drive a worker from the workplace. Evidence received by the
Committee indicates that this phenomenon is particularly present in the
teaching and nursing professions. The following individual impact statement was
given by a teacher at one of the Committee’s closed sessions:
Imagine that your favourite teacher at school, the one who
impacted you the most and shaped who you are today, was found dead one morning,
a suicide note the only indication that their death was the direct result of
behaviours they had tolerated at the hands of bullies in their staffroom.
Workplace mobbing is described in the international
literature in ways such as these: workplace mobbing is an emotional assault;
one individual gathers others to participate in continuous, malevolent actions
to harm, control or force another person out of the workplace. The victim feels
increasingly helpless when the organisation does not put a stop to the
behaviour and may plan or even condone it. …Workplace mobbing targets people
who are high achievers, are enthusiastic and volunteer at work, love what they
do, have integrity and ethical standards, and promote human rights, dignity and
respect. These are the people that are targeted by this brand of bullying.
Irrespective of form, mode, or context, bullying is characterised by an
abuse of power, where vulnerable targets are ‘pushed into positions from which
they have no avenue of escape’. As such, bullying is
part of a ‘continuum of severity of the misuse of authority or actual power’.
Importantly, the concept of a power imbalance is not limited to traditional worker-manager
Bullying can be downwards (from superiors to subordinates), upwards
(from subordinates to superiors) or horizontal (amongst co-workers). Notions of
power need to be viewed in a broad manner, rather than simple hierarchies.
Speaking specifically about upwards and horizontal bullying, Dr Sara Branch, a
research fellow at Griffith University, observed:
The recognition of upwards and horizontal bullying emphasises
that processes beyond formal power are at play and that bullying is not just
conducted by managers. Power derived by a person's access to informal sources
such as expertise and information can be used along with formal sources to gain
sufficient power to bully others in the workplace.
Bullying in workplaces can quickly escalate into a ‘drama spiral’.
Namely, what begins as bullying between two primary workers is unlikely to be contained
to those people alone. Caponecchia and Wyatt discuss the ‘escalating drama
spiral’ that can result when inappropriate behaviour is not addressed early:
What generally happens, over time, is an escalating drama
spiral with a number of players, or stakeholders, in varying roles playing out
the ‘story’. The roles may include ‘bully’, ‘target’, ‘bystander’, people
responsible for intervening, family and friends of the various stakeholders,
other people who work in the organisation and possibly to organisation’s
consumers. ... The ‘drama’ attracts more players as time goes by and the
situation will reach out and affect other stakeholders. Over time the original
issue may well be lost sight of and the truth radically distorted.
Experiencing bullying at work can lead to a feeling of being trapped. In
some cases, the targets of bullying behaviours are caught in a ‘trifecta’: a
toxic working environment, difficult financial circumstances and not having
options for alternative employment. When trapped in that situation, individuals
can feel disempowered and unable to regain control of their surrounds.
The impacts of bullying can be extreme with its effects extending into
all areas of day-to-day activities, family life and broader social engagement. The
following comments were made by individual participants in the inquiry who have
experienced workplace bullying first-hand.
As a result of my combined two experiences I have given up
my career as a research scientist. I am too afraid to go back and put myself
in those situations again. It was a career that I loved, and I feel a great
sense of loss at the situation I now find myself in. I never expected to
become a target of bullying. I used to think of myself as a strong and
resilient person, but the stress that was caused by my situation—the fear of
losing my job and my career—had an extreme impact on me. My doctor told me
that the symptoms I felt were similar to the symptoms that someone has in a
life or death situation, and that the situation was prolonged by several
months, in fact more than a year, because the processes were not put in place
properly to deal with my complaint.
I have been in the same organisation [as my husband] since
1986. I had a variety of roles. The most current one is as work health and
safety adviser, which I find a great deal of conflict with because the
organisation has failed my husband; he was suicidal. It has failed so many
other people. You have people in tears in the workplace, and the workplace
does nothing. We have the legislation. I was the one that provided the
training. I wrote the presentation packages for the whole of this
organisation. I know what it is supposed to do.
Things became worse over the years. I attempted addressing
my concerns with the ‘bullying’. She denied that her intentions were harmful
and said she would never bully anyone as she had been bullied at school. When
I did speak to her about specific incidences she said she was joking. I
reported the matter to my immediate supervisor who said I’d be fine because I
was a strong and stable person whereas the ‘bully’ was insecure and had
problems relating to her childhood. The behaviours were constant and
unrelenting. She attempted to engage all new staff in the fiasco. Most of the
permanent staff knew better than to believe the lies yet all of us were
powerless. Others reported the issue to our supervisor. Still, nothing was
done. I began to withdraw and not function as well at work as I used to which
only gave her more ammunition.
To those who have not personally experienced bullying or
victimisation in the workplace the health consequences can sometimes be
difficult to appreciate. The reality is that for almost all of us our work is
the primary source of our income and, consequently, the lynchpin sustaining
most of our aspirations as well as the things we enjoy in our everyday lives.
When we are personally denigrated in the workplace on a systematic basis and
our key source of income is threatened the consequences can be devastating.
Like a cancer, the experience can seep into every facet of one’s life and
cause ongoing problems including anxiety, frustration, depressed mood and
difficulty relating to other people in a normal way. The primary cause of the
problem is the power imbalance between the bully and the victim, with the
latter typically feeling powerless to do anything about the behaviour due to
reliance on the income from his or her job or, perhaps, a desire for a
Prevalence and national evidence base
Bullying, particularly in the workplace, has been described as a ‘hidden
problem’. The prevalence of
workplace bullying in Australia cannot be determined with any precision due to
the absence of a national evidence base from which such indicators might be
drawn. Consequently, various studies report widely different estimates of the
prevalence of bullying in Australian workplaces.
A commonly accepted estimate of the prevalence of workplace bullying in
Australia comes from the Australian Workplace Barometer (AWB) project (2009-11).
The AWB project found that 6.8 per cent of Australian workers had been bullied
at work in the six months prior to being surveyed, with 3.5 per cent
experiencing bullying for longer than a six month period.
This figure is supported by the Personality and Total Health through
Life project, a longitudinal study on mental and physical health managed by the
Australian National University. This study also found that 6.8 per cent of
workers had been bullied at work in the six months prior to being surveyed. The
survey data was collected in 2011.
However, the prevalence of workplace bullying could be far greater than
this statistic. The Assistant Commissioner of the Productivity Commission (the
PC) stated that ‘it is probably higher than that ... it could be over 15 per
cent’. Professor Maryam Omari
we are not capturing in whatever studies are done the actual
rates of workplace bullying, which would be far higher than the 22 to 33 per
cent that I have found.
Similarly, DTC commented that every year they respond to 10,000 cases
that relate to some form of workplace bullying. The Chief Executive Director,
Ms Michele Grow, stated that the number who present or report their bullying is
significantly higher than statistical analysis has found. Ms Grow commented
that the figure is possibly closer to ‘one in three’ workers experience
bullying at work.
The Australian Public Service Commission (the APSC) found that 17 per
cent of staff had experienced harassment or bullying at work. Only 0.13 per
cent of these cases are investigated. The APSC believes that this higher rate
of reported bullying could involve unfounded accusations. 
The discrepancy of estimates indicates an urgent need to improve
Australia’s evidence base. Yet, collating solid evidence faces many statistical
- lack of common
- self-reporting – may
affect both under reporting and over reporting as workers and employer’s
struggle with defining behaviour as bullying;
- lack of consistency
in the research or data across Australian jurisdictions; or
- duplication – reports
to state-based regulators may relate to the same instance as reported to
federally-based industrial relations regulator or anti-discrimination
Without a national evidence base, regulators and governments struggle to
develop new initiatives or carve out the purpose and goals of new programs.
The cost of workplace bullying
The costs of workplace bullying are significant. The costs are myriad
and involve individual workers, employers, industry, government and the
community as a whole.
The PC estimates that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy
between $6 billion and $36 billion every year. Again, the absence of
reliable, concentrated data on workplace bullying is reflected in this broad-ranging
Other costs to the economy include public sector costs such as the
health and medical services, and income support and other government benefits
provided to individuals who prematurely depart the workforce based on their
bullying experience and injuries suffered.
The cost to employers
Workplace bullying costs employers an average of $17,000 to $24,000 per
case. These costs can be
directly or indirectly borne by the employer.
The Australian Industry Group (the AiG) submitted:
Bullying complaints not only reduce workplace morale, but can
prove to be a costly and time-consuming exercise for employers. Employers may
be faced with the potential costs of defending bullying allegations under work
health and safety laws, legal representation, settling a complaint, and the
negative publicity that may arise as a result of the complaint. Even if a
complaint is resolved internally, there are costs associated with conducting an
Harmers Workplace Lawyers commented that, in their experience, workplace
bullying results in:
- staff turnover, and
thus additional recruitment costs;
- management down-time
– due to the significant time involved in responding to, and investigation of,
allegations of workplace bullying;
- loss of productivity
– due to sick leave and/or workers compensation claims;
- diminishment of
workplace culture – worker morale can be negatively impacted due to workplace
- impact on company
The cost of lost productivity to employers was discussed by many other participants
in the inquiry. For example, the Chief Executive Officer, Mr Rex Hoy, of the
Commonwealth tripartite agency, Safe Work Australia said:
I find it frustrating that a lot of businesses do not think
that good performance in work health and safety can lead to improved
productivity. We have been battling for a fair bit with companies to identify
and report on performance in this area in terms of their bottom line. They just
aggregate all of this in terms of their normal [human resource] performance,
and you cannot get them to think about and focus on how good work in health
will lead to good and improved productivity.
...some well-performing companies that have focused on
this... claim that it actually leads to improved performance. It must lead to
improved performance, because you reduce absenteeism and improve morale. It
just goes without saying, but it is pretty hard to convince people.
Safe Work Australia also contrasted the higher costs of workplace
bullying compensation claims to those of ‘traditional’ (physical) injuries:
For the financial year 2007-08 the average cost of a
compensation claims due to workplace bullying/harassment was $41 700 and the
average time lost from work was 25 weeks compared to the average cost of all
claims of $13 300 and the average time lost from work of 7 weeks.
These costs fail to account for the human costs including reduced
quality of life for victims, colleagues, children, spouses and costs to the
Individuals who experience workplace bullying suffer significant
personal costs. The extent of these costs is influenced by the nature of the
bullying behaviours, their duration, and the efficacy of responses. These costs
are also influenced by factors intrinsic to the ‘target’ – their coping styles,
perceptions and reactions as well as the personal support systems provided by
family and friends.
Bullying results in significant negative consequences for an
individual’s health and wellbeing. People who have been exposed to bullying at
work have been found to experience the following:
- post-traumatic stress
- sleep disturbances;
- lowered self-esteem;
- chronic fatigue;
- suicidal thoughts;
- feelings of nervousness,
insecurity and victimisation;
complaints and muscular tension;
- stomach upset; and
- social withdrawal.
DTC reported that one in two people who experience bullying also suffer
an ‘extreme version of stress-related complications including stomach ulcers,
tachycardia, hair loss, dermatitis, panic attacks, [and] irritable bowel
Financial stress can be caused by the target needing time off work to
treat the many physical and psychological consequences listed above. These
additional costs can quickly escalate should the target pursue legal action
against individuals, employers or submit workers compensation claims, all of
which can be expensive and protracted experiences for already traumatised
Broader costs include social isolation, withdrawal from family or
friends, and dismissal or loss of job promotion opportunities.
These can have significant flow-on effects to bystanders, co-workers, family
and friends. In extreme cases, targets commit suicide with all the associated
consequences for friends and family.
Mr Panlock discussed the effect that his daughter’s suicide has had on
It impacted on our family. It was not just Brodie. She did
the ultimate task, if you want to call it that. It has affected our family and
it is nearly six years. It affected the whole family. It is not just us but our
other children, their grandparents, cousins and so on.
Defining workplace bullying
Providing a definition of workplace bullying was a key issue throughout
the inquiry. However, some participants cautioned that the debate about a
definition might distract from the broader issue. The Northern Territory
Working Women's Centre warned:
It is an interesting debate. We actually shy away from
talking too much about the definition, because it leads to so much discussion
that it can detract from the actual issue. So we do not have a standard
definition. As long as we are talking about repeated events—we are not talking
about a one-off incident; we are talking about repeated events over a period of
time that leave a person feeling powerless, and that they are harmed physically
or psychologically. That, as far as we are concerned, is workplace bullying.
Similarly, Dr Caponecchia stated:
I think [defining workplace bullying] is sometimes a
distractor and that the idea that we do not have a definition of workplace
bullying in Australia is a little misleading. ... I think that sometimes saying
that there is no definition or that it is still controversial is almost a
barrier to doing something about this. I do not think we should be seduced by
that at all.
However, workers, their legal and industrial representatives, employer
organisations, academics and employment assistance providers all supported adopting
a nationally consistent definition of workplace bullying.
Providing this guidance and assurance through a definition, it was
argued, would give clarity and confidence for workers and employers alike.
The AiG referred to the colloquial, loose definitions of ‘bullying’ as ‘unacceptable
or anti-social behaviour or behaviour that a person is unhappy with’.
Such behaviour is unlikely to amount to ‘bullying’ as provided under
All jurisdictions in Australia have definitions of workplace bullying in
their respective guidance materials or regulations. However, there is neither a
nationally consistent definition, nor an awareness of what behaviour amounts to
workplace bullying. It may be that there is no wide-spread appreciation of
these definitions, indicating that greater education is needed to increase
awareness of the regulation of these behaviours.
Emerging from definitions adopted by the state, territory and federal
jurisdictions, three criteria appear to dominate: the behaviours have to be
repeated, unreasonable and cause a risk to health and safety. Dr Caponecchia
These criteria are relatively consistent across jurisdictions,
and are fundamentally quite conservative in nature when they are properly applied.
They are not always properly nor consistently applied when discussing or
reporting bullying, which can lead to some mislabelled claims, and misdirected
A cross-range of witnesses recommended the following definition:
bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker, or
group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.
‘Repeated behaviour’ is further defined as the persistent nature of the
behaviour and can refer to a range of behaviours over time. ‘Unreasonable
behaviour’ was also defined as behaviour that a reasonable person, having
regard for the circumstances, would see as victimising, humiliating,
undermining or threatening.
Balanced against this definition is the need for managers to be able to
manage their staff. It was argued by multiple participants in the inquiry that
in order to ensure that employers are entitled to properly manage and monitor
the conduct of their workers, the definition of workplace bullying must include
performance management by an employer;
disciplinary action by an employer; and
- reasonable management
Performance management processes ‘should not be a barrier to taking
action on workplace bullying’. Many witnesses indicated
that clear and consistent identification of what bullying is, and what it is
not, would help ameliorate concerns over false claims, or fears of being
accused of bullying when counselling staff about their performance.
Intentional versus unintentional bullying
The evidence received by the Committee indicates that under the
definition of workplace bullying stipulated above, the intent of the
perpetrator is not required to be established. Dr Sheryl Ramsay and Dr Jane
Murray, researchers in the area of workplace bullying, observed that in their
research, many workers are not aware of the effect of their behaviour in the
workplace and consequently, bullying can be seen as ‘accidental’ or unintended.
However, in a joint submission, Dr Moira Jenkins and Mr Karl Luke argued:
Most definitions of bullying do not include intent as a
requirement. Instead, a core component of bullying is said to be the subjective
perception of the victim that repeated acts are hostile, humiliating and
intimidating, and the unreasonable nature of the actions themselves. This is
very similar to some definitions of sexual harassment, where the perpetrator
may not have intended to cause humiliation or embarrassment, but their sexually
suggestive actions have contributed to a target feeling intimidated and
Similarly, Safe Work Australia also advises stakeholders of the
differences between intentional and unintentional bullying. It submitted:
Bullying can be intentional, where the actions are intended
to humiliate, offend, intimidate or distress, whether or not the behaviour did
have that effect. Bullying can also be unintentional, where actions which,
although not intended to humiliate, offend, intimidate or distress, cause and
should reasonably have been expected to cause that effect. Sometimes people do
not realise that their behaviour can be harmful to others.
Multiple other stakeholders, including the Law Society of Western
Australia, the APSC and the Australian Nursing Federation also advocated that
workplace bullying includes intentional and unintentional conduct.
An aggravated single incident
The Law Society of New South Wales called for a definition that includes
an ‘aggravated single incident’. Similarly, Professor
Maryam Omari commented that the effect of a single traumatic incident can be
‘re-lived’, and that the one action can be repeated in itself.
Extending the definition this way was not supported by all participants.
A single incident may have the potential to escalate and should not be
ignored by employers. However, broadening the
definition to include aggravated single incidents may extend the responsibility
of employers beyond what is reasonable.
Aggravated single incidents may be captured by the physical assault
provisions of the criminal laws of each state and territory. Workplace bullying
as physical assault is discussed in chapter 2.
The Committee does not support extending the definition to include
single incidents, but supports the national adoption of the definition of
workplace bullying as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a
worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.
A consistent definition amongst the different jurisdictions would
provide clarity to workers, their employers, assistance providers as well as
the national debate. The case for national consistency is included in chapters 3
|The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government
promote national adoption of the following definition: workplace bullying is
repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of
workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.
To clarify, the Committee believes that the word ‘directed’ in Recommendation
1 encapsulates both intentional bullying behaviours and unintentional bullying.
Intentional and unintentional bullying was discussed above.
Unpacking the definition: what is, and what is not, workplace bullying
A key concern throughout the inquiry has been the lack of available
information on what is, and what is not, workplace bullying. Regulators do
provide some guidance to employers and workers alike about what constitutes
workplace bullying. However, this guidance provides examples of specific types
of behaviour rather than a list of criteria or indicators of bullying.
Stakeholders advocated for a national advice service that provides some
guidance as to whether the behaviour received, observed or reported amounts to
bullying. Providing this preliminary and general advice will allow workers and
employers to calibrate their response accordingly. The Queensland Law Society
misconceptions ... concerning the various concepts involved
in this area of law…. Just as concerted efforts should be made to eliminate
workplace bullying, similar efforts should be made in education of the wider
community about the conduct that falls within and falls outside of the
definition of workplace bullying.
The Law Institute of Victoria submitted:
It is vitally important for employers and employees to
understand what constitutes bullying, what does not constitute bullying, and
who has duties in relation to bullying in the workplace.
Dr Jane Murray from Bond University also discussed how clarity around
the definition will assist national discussion and drive change:
If we are educating people about what workplace bullying is,
we also need to be educating them about what workplace bullying is not, so that
everybody is coming from the same page. …We do not want to create panic; we
want to say, ‘This is what it is and this is what it is not, and now here are
some ways in which we can upskill ourselves as a population in the workplace to
make sure that it doesn’t happen.’
Dr Caponecchia discussed the development of a ‘decision tool’ to guide
stakeholders through a self-assessment against established criteria. Dr
I think a lot of our problems would be solved if there were
some tools to help people decide in a cool-headed manner: is what is happening
to me likely to meet those criteria? …We are proposing a decision tool that
helps people make that decision. I think there needs to be some work done on
Providing this basic clarity to the two primary stakeholders, workers
and employers, is a first step. Indentifying poor workplace behaviour that is
bullying will not resolve the problem alone. But it does prompt the parties,
and their support networks, to act to address the behaviour and work to improve
the system and culture that permitted it to arise.
|The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government
develop a national advisory service that provides practical and operational
advice on what does and does not constitute workplace bullying, and offers self-assessment
and guidance materials to workers and employers to determine whether behaviour
meets the workplace bullying definition established in Recommendation 1.
Throughout this report, the Committee will make several recommendations
that call on the Commonwealth Government to establish a new service. Although
these recommendations are dispersed, the Committee wishes to clarify that these
new national services could be delivered by a single agency.
Defining the workplace
Current legislation and regulations of workplaces adopt the terms ‘person
conducting a business or undertaking’ and ‘worker’ rather than the
traditionally used ‘employer’ and ‘employee’. These terms are used in Australia’s harmonised work health and
safety laws as adopted in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, the Australian
Capital Territory, South Australia, and the Northern Territory as well as at
the Commonwealth level.
The terms will be used interchangeably throughout this report.
Who is a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’?
A ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU) is defined as a
person who conducts a business or undertaking alone or with others, whether or
not it is conducted for profit or gain. A person may be a
company, unincorporated association or partnership or an individual who is
conducting a business in their own right as a sole trader or self-employed
Who is a ‘worker’?
Worker is defined as a person who carries out work in any capacity for a
PCBU. Workers therefore are not only employees but also contractors,
subcontractors, labour hire workers, outworkers, apprentices, trainees, work
experience students and volunteers.
Workplace bullying as a risk to work health and safety
Bullying at work is regulated by many areas of law at both the
Commonwealth and state/territory levels. These areas of law will be discussed
throughout the report. However, the primary regulation of workplace bullying
occurs within the work health and safety framework.
Workplace bullying is well recognised as a work health and safety (WHS)
matter: a psychological hazard. Risks to psychological injury, like physical
hazards, must be mitigated. 
In the context of WHS, a risk management framework includes
identification, assessment, control and monitoring of hazards that pose a risk
to the health and safety of workers.
After attending the eighth International Conference on Workplace
Bullying and Harassment in Copenhagen in June 2012, Dr Caponecchia argued that
approaching bullying through a risk-management rubric is an example of
international best-practice, and that Australia is considered a leader in this
While the Committee is pleased to hear this feedback, Australia could do more
to prevent and respond to workplace bullying.
The WHS framework also establishes rights and obligations for workers
and employers. The responsibility to prevent workplace bullying is covered in
WHS legislation by the duty of care held by employers to provide a healthy and
safe working environment for their workers. Workers also have the duty to
ensure their actions do not constitute a risk to the health and safety of
themselves or other people at the workplace. These rights and
obligations are discussed in more detail in chapter 2.
The protection afforded to workers varies between state/territory and
federal jurisdictions. Concurrent with this inquiry, all jurisdictions are
working toward harmonising these protections.
Harmonisation of work health and safety laws
In July 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) signed the
Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in
Occupational Health and Safety. This commitment included the development and
implementation of a complete and fully integrated package including a model
Act, supported by model Regulations, model Codes of Practice and a National
Compliance, Enforcement Policy and guidance material. These instruments were,
and continue to be developed by Safe Work Australia. 
The model WHS laws commenced in New South Wales, Queensland, the
Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory on 1 January 2012. In
its limited jurisdiction, the Commonwealth also adopted the WHS laws on this
date. The model WHS laws are due to commence in Tasmania and South Australia on
1 January 2013. South Australia and Western Australia remain committed to
implementing the model WHS laws. At the time of writing, the South Australian
WHS is currently before Parliament, and is anticipated to be passed by the
Parliament in its final sitting session of 2012. Victoria is the only
jurisdiction to announce that it will not be adopting the model WHS laws in
their current form.
On the topic of workplace bullying, the harmonisation effort is directed
towards the adoption of a new Code of Practice as developed through Safe Work
Australia. An initial draft was released for public comment in 2011.
The Committee understands that a decision has been made by the members
of Safe Work Australia to postpone the approval of the revised draft Code to
await the conclusion of the Committee’s inquiry in order that consideration be
given to issues raised in this report. The Committee hopes that
its report complements the upcoming public consultation phase and that the
finalisation process continues with haste.
Scope of inquiry and parameters
The scope of the inquiry is limited to bullying at work. Some
participants commented that workplace bullying must be seen in a broader
context, as a community-wide issue. For example, the Australian Chamber of
Commerce and Industry submitted:
It is generally accepted that bullying is not confined to any
particular parts of the community, and is not isolated to the workplace. It is
a community wide issue which requires a community wide policy response.
The Committee’s terms of reference were to focus on bullying in the
workplace, and there are specific legal obligations that arise with respect to
bullying in a workplace to focus on.
The following areas of law seek to regulate the behaviours associated
with workplace bullying:
- work health and
- industrial relations;
- criminal law;
- workers’ compensation
The intersecting responsibilities of federal and state or territory
regulation add layers of complexity. Navigating through the matrix of
regulations can be overwhelmingly complex for workers and employers alike.
Despite these varied and complex state and federal regulations, Harmers
Workplace Lawyers observed:
it is not uncommon for a client to have experienced
significant workplace bullying (and subsequently suffer psychological injury
with devastating impacts on ongoing employment prospects), yet have little
redress under any of the above legal avenues (apart from some limited workers
compensation payments that they may be available).
The ‘gap’ identified here is the absence of specific (and uniform)
regulation of workplace bullying that does not ‘hinge off’ the areas of law
identified above. Indeed, workplace bullying manifests in vastly different ways;
it is the diversity of circumstances that, despite the variety of regulation,
appear to lead many bullying incidents to fall between the areas of regulation.
Though the Commonwealth’s power to legislate on matters of industrial
relations has extended in recent years, WHS is a matter remaining within the
residual powers of the states.
The Committee can only make recommendations to the Commonwealth agencies.
Consequently, the Committee’s report predominantly seeks to make
recommendations for improved regulation and policy at the Commonwealth level
and in the areas where it has greater legislative responsibility. The report
discusses the harmonisation of WHS law throughout the jurisdictions and recent
efforts to adopt a harmonised Code of Practice for bullying.
The Committee makes its recommendations in the context of this current
reform agenda. These recommendations should not be seen as detracting from the
WHS regulation of the states and territories, but rather complementing these efforts.
Further, this report is about providing people with different options; to
encourage targets of bullying to pursue genuine complaints whilst acknowledging
that different circumstances may favour one mechanism of redress over another.
Conduct of the inquiry
Referral of inquiry
The Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard MP and the Minister for
Employment and Workplace Relations, the Hon Bill Shorten MP jointly announced the
inquiry on 26 May 2012.
The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations referred terms of
reference for the inquiry on 29 May 2012. The terms of reference are set out in
the front pages of the report.
The Committee announced the inquiry on 1 June 2012 and called for
submissions from interested individuals and organisations. The Committee also
invited submissions directly from a wide range of stakeholders including state
and territory governments, peak advocacy bodies, employer organisations, business
chambers, unions, and employment assistance providers.
A total of 319 submissions were received of which over 200 were authored
by individuals who had experienced first-hand or witnessed workplace bullying.
The remainder was received from a broad cross-section of stakeholders with an
interest in the subject matter. The submissions are listed in Appendix A.
The Committee also received a large volume of confidential submissions
and supporting documents that were accepted as confidential exhibits. While
documents taken on a confidential basis have not been cited in the report, they
have been made available to Committee members and informed deliberations. A
list of exhibits is included in Appendix B.
The Committee conducted 11 public hearings in all state and territory
capitals. Details of hearings and witnesses are included at Appendix C.
Individual submissions and impact statements
A key objective for the inquiry was to hear from individuals who had
personally experienced workplace bullying or had supported a co-worker or
family member through its effects. In addition to written submissions, time was
set aside for individual impact statement sessions at the end of public
hearings in each capital city. Both avenues carried equal weight and were given
equal consideration by the Committee in preparing this report.
The Committee received a great number of individual submissions many of
which provided extensive documentation of their experience. The Committee does
not have decision-making or referral functions. Rather, these submissions
helped to shape the Committee’s report and its recommendations.
Prior to publishing these submissions, the Committee resolved to redact
identifying information to ensure the privacy of all concerned. Further,
authors’ initials were used rather than full names. These redacted submissions
were subsequently published on the Committee’s webpage in accordance with parliamentary
practice. Submissions were considered in their original form by the Committee.
Individual impact statement sessions were an opportunity for members of
the public to recount their experiences and provide details of the effects of
bullying. To encourage maximum participation by individuals who may have been
reluctant to be publicly identified, these sessions were not permitted to be
reported by the media. Though forming part of its evidence record and used
privately by the Committee in consideration of this report, complete statements
provided were not published. Excerpts from these sessions have been
incorporated into the report with the prior approval of witnesses.
To ensure equal opportunity for all members of the public wishing to make
individual statements, the Committee allocated a total amount of time to these
statement sessions, and divided that time equally amongst those individuals.
Individual impact statement sessions were important not only for the
Committee in its evidence-gathering, but also important for those individuals
who had experienced or witnessed workplace bullying to be provided with an
opportunity to simply be heard. These sessions did not follow the typical
opening statement and question structure as this was not the purpose. Committee
members did not question participants about their experience, rather, they listened
to stories recounted by individuals.
The Committee observed the support amongst participants both during the
sessions and at their conclusion. Many expressed a sense of relief resulting
from the simple act of being listened to.
Public / private balance
A challenge for the Committee was to achieve a public/private balance in
the evidence it received from affected individuals.
Many individuals stated off the record that they would not participate without
ensuring their privacy and anonymity. Many of the bullying incidents described
by individual participants in the inquiry resulted in deeply personal and
traumatic experiences. The Committee received evidence of extreme emotional
upheaval, anger, frustration, anxiety, depression and suicide.
Yet an open and public discussion of workplace bullying may assist to
remove the stigma and shame that many affected individuals feel. Reflecting
this, some individuals submitting to, and appearing before, the Committee
wanted to provide their name and the name of their employer to frankly and
openly discuss what they had experienced.
An open discussion of workplace bullying also works towards establishing
a broader culture within the Australian community that demonstrates the
public’s values for respect and integrity, as well as establishing standards of
appropriate behaviour in the workplace. Similar opportunities and challenges are
faced when tackling gender discrimination.
Approaching its official evidence gathering in a way that respected the
competing desires for privacy and open discussion, was integral to the outcomes
of a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying. Not only did the inquiry
contribute to the public discussion on the issue, but it also encouraged it to
be elevated onto a national platform.
Structure of report
Following this introductory chapter, the report is structured in two
Part One discusses the current landscape in which employers and workers
are located. Within this part, chapter 2 presents the legislative and
regulatory frameworks for workplace bullying at the federal, state and
territory levels. The chapter addresses work health and safety law, criminal law,
anti-discrimination law, industrial relations systems and workers compensation
Chapter 3 extends this discussion into the workplace context. The chapter
will look at the capacity for workplace policies to prevent and respond to
bullying. It will then examine the role of internal dispute-resolution
Chapter 4 will briefly examine how workplace cultures can ‘set-the-tone’
for appropriate workplace behaviour and give effect to zero-tolerance policies
through role-modelling by organisation leaders.
Part Two explores effective policies for governments to adopt in
responding to the complexities and challenges of workplace bullying in
Australia. As acknowledged above, the predominant area of law that regulates
workplace bullying is work health and safety law – an area that falls within
the residual powers of the states and territories under the Constitution.
Chapter 5 examines how the tools for prevention and resolution of
workplace bullying can be enhanced. Workplace bullying falls within a complex
system of regulation and support services that are notably dispersed. A new
national advice, assistance and resolution service will be discussed, as well
as the possibility of establishing a single entry point to regulators.
Chapter 6 discusses how enforcement and individual remedies can be
bolstered. It examines whether the enforcement measures currently available are
sufficient to respond to all instances of workplace bullying and whether they
are effectively applied. The chapter also presents the numerous calls for
improving access to individual remedies for those adversely affected by
bullying at work.