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.
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.
occurs when a person or group of people is treated less favourably than another person or group because of certain
including gender identity
- Trade union
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
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.
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.
- Having a policy
for preventing harassment, discrimination and bullying, and procedures for effectively dealing with complaints
if they do occur.
the policy and procedures consistently and regularly to all staff, and introducing them to new staff as part of
- Training all
supervisors in the application of the policy and procedures, not forgetting new supervisors when they are
- 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.
complaints seriously, and investigating and resolving them promptly and effectively.
complainants are given appropriate support and are not victimised for making a complaint.
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.tranzition.com.au