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Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying

Why They Don’t Belong in Your Workplace



Under state and federal laws, it is an employer’s duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work.  It also makes good business sense.


Harassment, discrimination and bullying are wrong – and are also against the law.  The impact of such behaviour can affect an employee’s ability to perform their job, and can also impact on their colleagues’ ability to perform theirs’.  In addition to negatively affecting productivity (and therefore the business’s bottom line), these behaviours may result in a tense and unhappy atmosphere in the workplace.  An organisation where anxiety, tension, poor concentration and absenteeism proliferate is unlikely to be an employer of choice in the market, and will therefore have difficulty attracting and retaining quality staff.


So what are harassment, discrimination and bullying?  And how can you prevent them in your workplace?




Harassment is any behaviour that is unwelcome, offensive, intimidating or humiliating.  Harassment may involve physical contact, verbal comments, non-verbal behaviour, email, or the display of offensive material.  This definition also encompasses sexual harassment.  Assault, including sexual assault, is a severe form of harassment.




Direct discrimination occurs when a person or group of people is treated less favourably than another person or group because of certain attributes, including:


  • Gender, including gender identity
  • Age
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Sexual preference
  • Pregnancy
  • Family/carer responsibilities
  • Marital status
  • Political affiliation
  • Trade union membership


Indirect discrimination occurs when a requirement that is the same for everyone excludes a person or group of people in an unfair manner because of an irrelevant attribute (eg: an unnecessary height requirement that works to exclude all but the tallest women, along with people of certain ethnic groups)




Bullying is the repeated, less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice.  It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades and humiliates.  Bullying is usually characterised by a pattern of abuse.


NB: Reasonable and legitimate management action taken by an employer in relation to a person’s employment (eg: performance management, disciplinary proceedings, etc) is not harassment, discrimination or bullying.  Neither is a difference of opinion, argued professionally and without the subsequently holding of grudges by either party.


Preventative Measures


As employers are directly liable for both their own actions and the actions of their employees, victims of harassment, discrimination or bullying can bring a complaint against the employer, the other employee/s (perpetrator/s), or both.  A defence against such claims is that the employer took reasonable steps to prevent the harassment, discrimination or bullying.


Reasonable steps include:


  • Having a policy for preventing harassment, discrimination and bullying, and procedures for effectively dealing with complaints if they do occur.


  • Communicating the policy and procedures consistently and regularly to all staff, and introducing them to new staff as part of their induction.


  • Training all supervisors in the application of the policy and procedures, not forgetting new supervisors when they are appointed.


  • In larger organisations, nominating and training specialised ‘contact officers’ to assist in the receipt and investigation of complaints, and to help educate their colleagues on the benefits or a workplace free of harassment, discrimination and bullying.


  • Taking complaints seriously, and investigating and resolving them promptly and effectively.


  • Ensuring complainants are given appropriate support and are not victimised for making a complaint.


  • Regularly reviewing the effectiveness of the policy and procedures.


  • Building a culture that promotes fair and equitable treatment of others, and encourages mutual respect (perhaps as part of an employee code of conduct).


Failure to implement reasonable steps could result in direct or vicarious liability and an unfavourable judgement from WorkCover, the Industrial Relations Commission, the Anti-Discrimination Commission, or the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.  Penalties imposed can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the jurisdiction, the severity of the case, and the presence or absence of mitigating factors.  But even if a case against the organisation is not brought, or is not successful, significant costs may still be incurred in lost productivity, higher staff turnover rates, and failure to attract quality staff. 


So why take the risk?  Whichever way you look at it, striving for a workplace free of harassment, discrimination and bullying makes good business sense.  And they cost much less to prevent than they do to cure!



By Trevor Neville, Principal, and Kirsten Ferguson (Human Resource Management Consultant), TranZition Professional and Executive Recruitment, Level 3 Waterfront Place, 1 Eagle Street, Brisbane Qld 4000. Email:  Web:






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