Bullying can include verbal or physical abuse, such as yelling, screaming or offensive language. It can also include subtle psychological abuse, such as assigning employees impossible tasks, or deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience an employee.
Bullying may be unlawful under federal anti-discrimination laws where the bullying is linked to, or based on, a protected characteristic, such as the person’s age, sex, race or disability. There are some limited exceptions and exemptions.
Employers can be liable for acts of bullying by their employees. This is called ‘vicarious liability’.
Example: Colleagues bullied a co-worker with an intellectual disability. Because this treatment was based on the fact he had an intellectual disability, a complaint of disability discrimination could be made.
Bullying is also prohibited by the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). The Act defines bullying as ‘repeated unreasonable behaviour towards another person or group which creates a risk to health and safety.’ Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.
Employees in organisations covered by the Fair Work Act can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying. In addition, employers have an obligation under occupational health and safety legislation to eliminate or reduce the risks to employees' health and safety caused by workplace bullying.