A HR dilemma - is bullying happening in your workplace?

Few issues are as hot in HR right now as workplace bullying. But working out whether you’re harbouring one can be difficult, especially as the fine line between tough love and, well, outright bullying behaviour, can be a fine one. With that in mind – and to help you avoid the potential cost, embarrassment and damage a bully can cause both to the victim and to your business – we’ve created this guide to spotting workplace bullies.

What constitutes bullying?

The best place to start your search for bullies in your workplace is by looking at the words of the law about what constitutes bullying.

For the purposes of the Fair Work Act 2009, bullying happens when:

a) a person or group of persons repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards another person or group of people in the workplace, and
b) that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Based on this definition, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) has found many different actions to be bullying at various times, such as:

The FWC has also found that bullying can be between colleagues, from superiors or even from subordinates. In short, it can be a whole range of behaviour from a whole range of people.

So perhaps what is just as important as understanding what potentially constitutes bullying, is also knowing:

What doesn’t constitute bullying from an HR perspective

The legislation is explicit in stating that “reasonable management action” won’t be classed as bullying. This includes taking performance management action against someone, taking disciplinary action against them or denying them a benefit – so long, of course, as these actions are undertaken in a reasonable manner.

The FWC has ruled that this doesn’t necessarily mean someone has to be polite towards everyone or has to conduct themselves in a particular way. There has to be something more to someone’s behaviour than that for it to be bullying.

Identifying bullies in your business

So now that you know what bullying behaviour looks like from the perspective of someone that works in HR, how do you identify specific bullies in your workplace?

Well, far from the stereotype of the dim-witted thug, studies have actually shown that bullies are often socially aware and intelligent people who can recognise vulnerable people to victimise.

They tend to upset their victims often – sometimes over events or situations or in ways that people with higher self-esteem wouldn’t think twice about. They also tend to lack empathy, failing to get excited when others get excited or frustrated when others do.

On a practical level, the bully will be the one initiating stories about a colleague or becoming belligerent towards someone, seemingly for no good reason. If they have power, they’ll often misuse it – preventing someone from achieving what they want, excluding them from a group or getting aggressive when someone pushes their buttons.

If you see this kind of behaviour happening those red flags should start waving and it’s time to act.

What to do when you identify a bully

If you notice a bully in your workplace or if someone complains about bullying, you must intervene. Doing nothing is simply not an option. After all, you have an obligation to protect the health and safety or your staff and you need to take that obligation seriously.

Generally, if you have a workplace bullying policy that should be your first port of call. (If you don’t have one, speak with an HR adviser, like us as soon as possible) This should set out exactly how your organisation will respond to any perceived bullying.

Regardless of what that says, though, the first thing you have to work out is whether you really have uncovered workplace bullying or whether it’s something or someone you should monitor.

If you think you may have uncovered instances of bullying, the next human resources step should always be to minimise any fallout – whether that’s simply a matter of reassigning workloads, moving an employee into another team or something more.

In the meantime, whatever you do, don’t jump to conclusions. Remain impartial and carry out a proper investigation. Make sure the victim of the bullying behaviour gets the assistance they need but don’t neglect the alleged perpetrator either – they too may need support.

If you’re convinced someone has engaged in bullying, take action but take it properly and follow the right procedures. Otherwise, you’re likely to find you have an unfair dismissal on your hands as well as bullying claim.

The good news is that the Fair Work Commission has its own video on how to deal with bullying.... Alternatively, you can download the whole SafeWork Australia guide here.

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