Workplace Bullying

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers.

Workplace bullying threatens, intimidates or humiliates a person or a group of people in the workplace and creates a risk to their health and safety.

What are some examples of workplace bullying?

  • Yelling, abusive, insulting, threatening or offensive language;
  • Being singled out, excluded, isolated or treated differently to co-workers;
  • Displaying material that is degrading or offensive;
  • Ongoing attempts to undermine you and your work performance;
  • Setting unrealistic goals and deadlines that are very difficult to achieve or constantly change;
  • Having reasonable requests for leave or training opportunities denied;
  • Behaviour or language that belittles, degrades or humiliates you especially in front of others;

Violence, assault and stalking are extreme forms of bullying that should be reported immediately to the police as a criminal offence.

What is not bullying behaviour?

  • Reasonable and fair performance management or disciplinary action that is transparent and measurable and directed at work performance and not at the individual;
  • Differences of opinion or conflicts in working relationships, which do not lead to persistent unreasonable behaviour, are not bullying.

How does bullying affect me?

  • Bullying at work is a problem which is recognised as one of the main causes of workplace stress. Bullying can have a variety of physical and psychological effects on women and men at all levels of employment. Commonly reported effects are:

    • Stress, anxiety and tension;
    • feelings of isolation at work;
    • loss of confidence and self esteem;
    • loss of financial security:
    • loss of or damage to personal relationships;
    • physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, becoming unwell, stomach cramps, sleep disorders and depression.

Is workplace bullying against the law?

Workplace bullying is defined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 and in the Fair Work Amendment Act (2013). In some cases bullying may be dealt with under other existing laws.

Your employer has obligations under workplace health and safety laws to provide a safe work environment. This includes providing policies, procedures and training to ensure an environment that is free from harassment. If you consider your workplace fails to meet these requirements you can contact SafeWork SA for more information or to lodge a complaint. A new “anti-bullying” jurisdiction in the Fair Work Commission began on 1 January 2014. The Fair Work Commission can make an order to stop the bullying. You will need to make a complaint using the form found on their website.

Usually you will be expected to have raised this issue with your workplace so that they have had an opportunity to address the bullying and prevent it from happening again.

Sometimes bullying includes physical assault. This is a criminal offence and should be reported to the police immediately.

Where bullying involves sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics, such as disability, gender, race or age, a claim may be made under discrimination law.

Where the bullying includes actions which alter your position or otherwise injure you in your employment, and it is based on a personal characteristic or because you exercised a workplace right, you may be able to make a complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman. See the Fact Sheets on Sexual Harassment and General Protections for more information.

If the effect of the bullying makes you so sick that you can’t work, you may be able to lodge a claim for worker’s compensation.

If bullying results in you being dismissed or leaves you no other alternative but to resign, you may be able to lodge a claim for unfair dismissal or unlawful termination through Fair Work Commission. If you feel forced to resign it is important that you seek advice before doing so.  See the Fact Sheet on Unfair Dismissal for more information.

What can I do if I am bullied?

  1. Keep a diary of events. Write down what bullying behaviours occurred and include dates, times and witnesses. This can be used at a later date if you choose to make a complaint. The act of writing down what has happened can have therapeutic benefits also. Keep copies of any emails or letters that demonstrate the bullying behaviours.
  2. Seek support. Severe workplace bullying is a traumatic experience and should be taken seriously. Talking to a professional counsellor or trusted friend can help you manage your stress whilst you consider your options.
  3. Don’t blame yourself. You are never to blame for bullying behaviours of another person.
  4. Avoid being alone with the bully. It is important to ensure your safety as much as possible.
  5. Avoid justifying yourself to the bully. When responding to deceptive, unfair or untrue criticisms and allegations avoid explaining, justifying, elaborating or apologising as such responses gives the criticism or allegation validity it does not have. Put the onus on the bully to provide substantive evidence to justify the accusation.
  6. Check your workplace grievance procedures. These should tell you who you complain to and how you do it. You should, if possible and it is safe to do so, follow these procedures.
  7. Talk to a trusted colleague. Bullying can be so subtle, co-workers may not even notice what is happening. A co-worker may be able to witness bullying behaviours if you alert them to what is going on.
  8. Seek advice. Talk to your union, if you are a member, Working Women’s Centre, Legal Services Commission or a workplace advisor or advocate. Seeking advice is particularly important if you are thinking about making a complaint to your employer or a government agency.
  9. Remain confident in your own ability and judgement.
  10. Look after yourself. Eat well, exercise, watch your alcohol intake and be kind to yourself.
  11. Find further information on workplace bullying on the internet. Some of it will be more useful than others.

Writing a letter of complaint

Deciding whether to write a letter of complaint directly to your employer can be a difficult decision.

The Working Women’s Centre SA recommends that you seek advice prior to writing a complaint so that you can be well prepared.

Hints and tips for writing a complaint;

  • keep the letter brief and to the point (maximum 2 pages);
  • stick to the facts;
  • remind your employer they have a statutory duty of care to ensure that your workplace is healthy and safe;
  • Include a short description of the bullying behaviours. If you need more space to detail a list of events, refer to them in your letter and attach them on a separate sheet;
  • Describe the impact the bullying has had on you but protect yourself by not giving information that is too personal;
  • Clearly state what outcome you are seeking within a suggested time frame e.g. an investigation, an apology, that the bully be kept away from you, that you receive a written response;
  • Sign and date the letter and include your contact details for a reply;
  • Keep a copy of your letter for your records.

Not all employers respond positively to complaints, or acknowledge letters but by raising the issues you are informing your employer of the bullying behaviour you have been experiencing and giving them a chance to deal with it.

Where else can I go for help?

Your union: SA Unions – P: (08) 8279 2222 W:

Working Women’s Centre – P: 1800 652 697  W:

Young Workers Legal Service – P: (08) 8279 2233

SafeWork SA – P: 1300 365 255

Fair Work Commission (FWC) – P: 1300 799 675

Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) – P: 13 13 94

Equal Opportunity Commission – P: (08) 8207 1977

Australian Human Rights Commission – P: (02) 9284 9600

AHRC Complaints Infoline – P: 1300 656 419

Lifeline (24 Hour Crisis Support) – P: 13 11 14

Contact us


Phone (08) 8410 6499 or for regional callers 1800 652 697

or contact us via email

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