Workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination

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Key points

  • everyone has the right to be treated fairly and respectfully in the workplace
  • bullying, harassment and discrimination can be unlawful.

What is workplace bullying, harassment & discrimination?

Bullying is repeated and harmful behaviour towards another person, that causes a risk to their safety and health. In the workplace, not all behaviour that makes people upset or anxious is bullying. For example, someone says something mean to you at work. If they only do it once and do not repeat it, the Fair Work Commission suggests that this is not bullying.

Bullying can look like:

  • sending harmful texts or emails
  • initiation or ‘hazing’ rituals
  • physical assault or violence
  • verbal abuse or name calling
  • intimidation and threats.

Harassment is unwanted and unsolicited behaviour that offends, humiliates, threatens or intimidates a person.

Harassment can look like:

  • sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
  • offensive jokes, slurs, gestures, comments, or name calling
  • displaying offensive pictures or objects
  • asking unwelcome questions about someone’s personal life
  • making unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favours.

Discrimination is when a person is treated unfairly or different, because of their background or personal characteristics.

For example, their disability, age, race, family responsibilities, relationship status, sex, gender, or sexuality.

When it is based on a person’s personal characteristics, discrimination can look like:

  • not being employed or promoted
  • being excluded from workplace activities
  • unfair or unequal employment conditions
  • being treated different, unfairly or unequally
  • denial of the use of workplace facilities or equipment. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission has a quick guide to discrimination for more information. 

What does the law say?

Under anti-discrimination legislation, the Fair Work Act and the Work Health and Safety Act workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination can be unlawful.

Employees may have an obligation to report all incidences of bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

Employers may have an obligation to protect their employee’s health and safety, by preventing and responding to incidences of workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination.

Safe Work Australia has a guide to preventing and responding to workplace bullying you may find helpful.

Have you experienced bullying, harassment, or discrimination?

If you think that you have experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination, there are things that you can do. 

Gather information

It is important to keep a record of what happened. This includes any proof that you may have. Read our article about how to keep a record.

To help you plan your next steps, you can ask your human resources department or you supervisor/manager for a copy of your workplace’s bullying, harassment and discrimination policy.

If you need advice or information about your situation, you can speak to your state or territory WHS regulator, an advocate, union representative or legal professional.

Read our article about getting help 

Take care of your well-being

You might want to talk to someone like a friend, family member or colleague .

Your workplace might have an EAP (employee assistance program) which you can use to access free counselling.

You can also contact Beyond Blue, Kids Help Line, Lifeline Australia, 1800 RESPECT for free counselling.

Report the incident

To report the incident, you need to notify your boss, a manager or supervisor.

Read our article about how to speak up.

If you have reported it to your employer, and it has not resolved, then you need to take further action.

Report to a government agency

eSafety Commissioner - if you have experienced cyber bullying, cyber abuse, or image-based abuse

Fair Work Commission – if you are a worker, you can apply for a stop-bullying order

Australian Human Rights Commission or your state and territory equal opportunity and anti-discrimination agencies - if you have experienced discrimination

Police – if you have been assaulted, threatened, stalked, or if bullying involves allegations of physical assault or damage to property.

Case story

When Jared started his new job, his co-workers started bullying him. They would steal or hide his tools, remove battery packs from their charger, call him names and deliberately sabotage his work. He reported it to his boss, who reassured him that it was just fun. The bullying continued for 3 months until Jared spoke to his union representative, who told him that what he was experiencing was workplace bullying. They helped him plan his next steps.

Story description

Real Life Story

I was applying for a promotion, which included an interview as part of the process. I wrote an email to human resources identifying as having a disability and listed what accommodations I would need during the formal interview process.

The list included having the interview questions prior, a quiet room away from the current building construction, and that I be able to sit at an angle that makes me comfortable.

Unfortunately, I received an email stating that my requests were denied, as they were deemed not necessary. So, because I knew that I would not be able to attend the interview, without those accommodations, I withdrew my application. I contacted the human rights commission and made a complaint. It is currently  being investigated.