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Bullying in the workplace – most of us have seen it, too many of us have been victims. It isn’t limited to places of hard yakka such as down mines, in the military, at mechanic workshops or on factory floors. Bullying happens everywhere from respectable corporations to hospitals, schools, universities and public service offices.

So what can we do about it? Usually the bully is someone higher in the workplace rankings. Many victims are reluctant to complain as they don’t want to make things worse, miss promotions or lose their job.

The first problem is to identify exactly what is bullying. Where does joking finish and bullying start? What’s normal give and take for one person might be intimidating for another.

Surprisingly, there is no statutory definition of bullying in NSW. This can leave technical loopholes for bullies to escape retribution. So long as an employer acts “reasonably” they can transfer, demote, discipline, counsel, retrench or sack you.

The Law Society of NSW has adopted the following definition: “Unreasonable and inappropriate workplace behaviour includes bullying, which comprises behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades, insults or humiliates an employee, possibly in front of co-workers, clients or customers and which includes physical or psychological behaviour”.

It doesn’t have to be physical aggression. It can include verbal abuse, threats, rude or belittling comments, spreading rumours, name calling, baiting or teasing, nasty practical jokes, dismissing a person’s work contributions and isolating someone from work discussions or information. Managers can bully with excessive scrutiny, unreasonable criticism, setting impossible tasks, unreasonable blocking of promotion or branding anyone who raises legitimate grievances as a troublemaker.

Legislation covering bullying includes industrial law, unfair dismissal, anti-discrimination and occupational health and safety laws. There is also the possibility of being able to sue employers who don’t prevent bullying as they breach duty of care laws.

Lawyers advise bullying victims to keep a diary of what happens, know their rights, consult WorkCover NSW, notify their HR, union or occupational health and safety representative, address the situation early and make a formal complaint. If you need help, get legal advice. There is legal action you can take under the various laws governing employment.

Employers also should get legal advice on their responsibilities such as written risk assessments aimed at preventing bullying.

The suicide of a bullied young female café worker in Melbourne prompted the Victorian government to make serious bullying punishable by up to ten years in jail. The federal government is currently conducting a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying to see if tougher national laws are needed.

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