Table of Contents
- 1 Bullying in the workplace
- 2 Gaslighting: A deeper form of bullying
- 3 Work-related stress caused by bullying
- 3.1 Worker details “soul crushing” toll of workplace bullying
- 3.2 Constructive Dismissal
- 3.3 Retail worker forced to resign due to bullying and death threat from boss
- 3.3.1 Store owner threatens to kill student for making his wife stressed
- 3.3.2 Student is forced to resign due to bullying by store owner
- 3.3.3 Both parties argue their cases at the Fair Work Commission
- 3.3.4 Fair Work Commission refutes store owner’s argument
- 3.3.5 Was the student forced to resign due to bullying?
- 3.4 Another Case of Constructive Dismissal: The Story of Lisa Dale
- 4 To lodge an application for unfair dismissal you need to:
- 5 Wrapping up
Do you dread Monday mornings? Are you feeling claustrophobic at the thought of facing your colleagues at your workplace? Would you rather resign than continue being subjected to humiliation and maltreatment from your employer or colleague? If your answers are yes, you could be facing bullying at the workplace.
Many people assume that bullying is a one-time phase in high school. But they often get a rude awakening when confronted with bullying in the workplace. Many of these bullies are now in a place of authority that enables them to repeatedly treat others with disdain and shame them.
In today’s digital world, bullying is often not physical, making it harder to detect and prove. Most workplace bullies will resort to cyber-bullying and spreading malicious rumours that gnaw at your self-worth and cause you to question your sanity. Some bullies are also very skilled at using tactics that are difficult to prove. And they often make sure to present themselves as polite to management, but then behind their backs, insult and harass their co-workers.
Bullying in the workplace is often not reported. This is because the person being bullied is gas-lighted to accept that reality. And the resulting low self-esteem will make resignation a more favourable option.
Bullying has a debilitating effect in the workplace. Aside from reducing individual productivity, it can also increase stress and anxiety amongst employees and in extreme cases, it can lead to suicide. There is a need for employees to equip themselves with knowledge on what constitutes bullying in the workplace. And importantly, how they can appropriately channel their complaints to the right authority.
If you have experienced workplace bullying, you are not alone. In this article, you can find all the details you need to address your situation. And you can also read stories of Australian workers who have experienced bullying in the workplace.
Bullying in the workplace
Bullying can be described as abusive, coercing, malicious or rude behaviour, abuse or misuse of power intended to sabotage, humiliate, or harm the recipient. Bullying in the workplace happens when a person or group of persons are targeted repeatedly for unreasonable treatments that disturb their sanity and create a risk to health or safety.
Persons who are being bullied in the workplace are usually targeted because they are better or more productive than others. It could also be that the bully sees them as a threat to their ambitions. In certain complicated instances, bullying in the workplace simply occurs as a result of the bully’s insatiable quest for control.
Many workplace bullies do so because they are fixated on getting attention, they want to be noticed and feared. It could also be a result of their insecurities. A manager who feels incompetent about his job might decide to bully a staff who had displayed exceptional service. They may target such a person constantly to feel better about their underperformance.
Bullying in the workplace can reveal an abuse of power. Bullies usually use their offices to demean, oppress and exasperate others. They can similarly use subtle bullying. This is where they intentionally act mischievously usually in your absence to achieve their negative motives.
Workplace bullying often persists because employers overlook these overbearing actions, believing it will motivate employees to work harder. It could also be because the bully is a friend to the employer; hence it might be covered up.
But make no mistake. Bullying delivers absolutely no advantages to the workplace. Rather, it has a far-reaching negative impact on the company and employees’ mental and physical health. Bullying is detrimental to both individual and organisational goal actualisation. It leads to low morale and reduces performance.
What constitutes bullying?
Oftentimes, the onus lies in identifying the scenarios and actions that constitute bullying in the workplace. Bullying in the workplace might seem commonplace. However, not all actions done by coworkers or the employer is termed bullying.
Proving that you have been bullied at work might be a Herculean task. This is because most bullies are skilled at deflating your observations and playing the victim when confronted. Bullies often lack empathy and remorse, making it difficult to get them to acknowledge their actions.
According to Safe Work Australia, bullying is defined as “repeated and unreasonable behaviour” that targets an employee or group of employees and poses a risk to their “health and safety.” This means that bullying is behaviour that is of a persistent nature. And that it is behaviour that a reasonable person would deem unreasonable.
Some of the actions that indicate bullying in the workplace include:
- Targeted teasing or playing jokes.
- Mocking and belittling.
- Being purposely misled about work duties, like incorrect deadlines or unclear directions.
- Giving someone work above or below their skill level.
- Threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse.
- Excessive performance monitoring.
- Overly harsh or unjust criticism.
- Spreading rumours or innuendo.
- Leaving some workers out of work-related events
- Discrimination based on your race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or other protected characteristic.
What is not bullying?
You may experience a situation that makes you feel like you have been mistreated by a manager or colleague. However, it is important to remember that their behaviour may not meet the definition of workplace bullying.
According to Safe Work Australia, a once-off instance of unreasonable behaviour does not amount to bullying. However, it is still crucial to take note of the behaviour, as it could happen again and escalate into bullying.
There are plenty of situations that can make you feel unpleasant, but aren’t bullying. For instance, having a difference of opinion with a co-worker, a verbal argument or a clash of personalities.
Actions taken by your manager can often make you upset. But that doesn’t mean that they constitute bullying. Managers have the right to take reasonable management action. As long as these actions are carried out in a lawful and reasonable way, they do not constitute bullying.
While they could make you upset, a reasonable management action can include things like:
- Setting KPIs and deadlines.
- Conducting a performance appraisal.
- Informing an employee of their poor work performance.
- Setting meetings to help resolve poor performance.
- Placing an employee on a performance improvement plan.
- Denying an employee a promotion or benefits.
- Informing an employee about their inappropriate conduct.
- Making organisational changes that affect an employee’s position.
- Changing an employee’s duties.
- Allocating work hours or shifts.
In Australia, stories of workplace bullying are rife
Almost one in ten (8.6 per cent) Australian workers have suffered from bullying in the workplace, according to a 2021 survey by Safe Work Australia. Over half of those who have experienced bullying (55.6 per cent) said that it occurred at least once per week. The most common form of bullying reported was verbal abuse and humiliation, which was the experience of 42.7 per cent of bullying victims.
With bullying so widespread across Australian workplaces, it is no wonder why there so many workers who have shared their experiences online. An Australian worker who posted their story of bullying on Reddit shows how employers often do little to curb workplace bullying.
Australian worker experiences severe psychological bullying
In the post, the worker says that he has been employed at his company “for years.” And that his initial experience at the company had been “harmonious and positive.” However, that all changed two years ago, when he received a promotion. It meant that he had to work closely with someone who is “very insecure about his job.”
The worker relates how this person has been “bullying me very badly using psychological techniques that are very difficult to prove.” He shares how the bully uses a variety of techniques. This includes taking credit for his work, as well as undermining and overriding him. The bully also spreads gossip about the worker, makes sarcastic jokes, sets him up to fail and gaslights him.
The worker states that his bully is a “master” at using psychological tactics. And when he reported him to HR, “nothing happened.” One reason for this, the worker believes, is because the bully has a good relationship with the boss.
The worker then provides an example of the “very evil” way the bully recently belittled him. He says that he “made fun of me over a mass email” by making a sarcastic joke. And to “mask” his insult, the bully “always puts a smiley after the sarcastic joke.”
After two years of psychological torture, the worker says that his job performance has declined. And not only that, other colleagues are now acting in a toxic manner to him too, taking the bully’s lead.
“I want to live my life but trapped in this,” writes the worker. “Why are people so evil?”
Gaslighting: A deeper form of bullying
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to instill self-doubt and chaos in the victim’s mind. Gaslighting is referred to as a subtle form of bullying. It is subtle due to the difficulty in proving its existence.
When gas-lighting is employed in the workplace, employees feel unsettled and they experience low self-esteem. They perceive there is something wrong but sadly they can’t put a finger on it. They believe they are imagining the problem and are left conflicted. Such inner turmoil not only causes undue stress and pain. It can also lead to such things as insomnia, anxiety and depression. All these things add up, weighing the employee down in their private life, and causing them to be unproductive at work.
Gaslighting gives room for a manipulative power game where the bully intentionally seeks to control the situation and others mischievously.
Some signs of gaslighting in the workplace include drip-feeding information to employees. A workplace bully can intentionally hold on to some crucial details of the job and set up the employee for failure. Another example is changing essential elements of a person’s job without discussing that. It is a veiled attempt to get the employee antsy and get them riled up.
Springing last-minute surprises is another sign of gas-lighting. Such scenarios are created by the bully with the intent to discredit employees and make them look stupid before others. It can also be undermining behaviour intended to destroy an employee’s confidence. For example, criticising an employee openly or lying that others have complained about them.
Among the many negative effects of bullying, work-related stress leads the way. Stress is inevitable in a workplace. But when it becomes regular and unending, it can prove to be dangerous. Not only to the company, but to employees too.
There are several recognised illnesses that are associated with stress or are forms of stress. This includes PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), PTED (Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder), and depression. Bullying-related stress can greatly affect our lives, both within and outside the workplace. If left unchecked, it can prove to be a major challenge for workplaces. It can lead to internal bickering and get in the way of productivity.
- A feeling of helplessness about your job or lack of zeal to confront your workplace bully.
- Loss of confidence in your job and constant questioning of your intelligence.
- Feeling overly emotional and often wishing to cry.
- Feeling anxious or miserable, especially when you are around the bully.
- A lack of motivation in your job or life generally.
- Excessive and constant fatigue, always looking forward to closing hours.
- A drop in your level of productivity. You keep making mistakes that you normally won’t do.
- Headaches while at work.
- Constant loss of stamina and strength. Struggling to stay cheerful at your job.
- Palpitations and breathlessness at the sight of your workplace bully.
- Excessive perspiration and nightmares that are work-related.
- Loss of appetite, happiness, or an inability to smile.
- Loss of sex drive and libido due to issues at work.
- Upset stomach or having butterflies once you are in the workplace.
Worker details “soul crushing” toll of workplace bullying
On Reddit, a worker shared their experience of workplace bullying and how it has left them feeling defeated and degraded. The worker explains how they have endured seven months of bullying from a single individual. This has left them suffering from “horrid insomnia” and feeling “extremely burnt out.”
“I’m on antidepressants, and have lost 30 pounds,” writes the worker. They describe how the bully “keeps up the appearance of a polite hard worker” in front of upper management. But when they aren’t around, the bully is “rude and aggressive” to everyone.
Recently, the bully has begun targeting the worker, using a number of psychological tactics. This includes trying to exclude them, ignoring them and withholding information. Also, making many condescending remarks.
The worker says that they reported the bully to HR. But nothing came of the complaint. And then shortly after, instead of being held accountable, the bully was promoted to be the worker’s direct supervisor.
“I’m terrified of what this means for me, because I can’t tolerate any more abuse,” writes the worker. They explain how resigning just doesn’t seem to be an option right now. Namely, because the “job market is beyond difficult.” And they “can’t afford to be without pay.”
The worker says that the bullying has left them feeling “very lost.” And that it is particularly difficult as they used to enjoy their job prior to the bullying.
“It’s disheartening that horrid people and corporate bullies always get away with it.”Writes the worker.
Constructive dismissal refers to cases where employees resign due to the inability of the employer to provide a safe and sane working environment. In other words, even though the employee turned in their resignation, it is regarded as though they were dismissed. It is essentially a resignation or exit of the employee against their own will.
With a constructive dismissal, the onus of proof lies with the employee. You will need to prove that your employer breached a fundamental part of the employment contract that left you no choice but to resign. Your employer’s action must be the principal contributing factor and leaving your job must be a last resort. That is, it must have been the only reasonable option you could have taken.
In effect, a constructive dismissal only occurs if an employer behaves in a manner that may be considered a significant breach of the terms of the employment contract or unauthorised variation of the contract. There must be a real lack of alternative options open to the employee.
The Fair Work Act includes a provision that relates to this kind of situation. The provision submits that a person will be deemed to have been unfairly dismissed at the initiative of the employer if “the person resigned from his or her employment but was forced to do so because of the conduct or course of conduct, engaged in by his or her employer” (Section 386(1) (b)).
You can make a claim for constructive dismissal if you resigned because your employer didn’t make sure your working environment was safe. For example, allowing people to bully or harass you at work. You can also do so if unreasonable changes were made to how you work, like including longer working hours.
Such a claim can stand if you were demoted, or your payment was withheld. Also, if your employer took away benefits your contract said is due to you, like a company car. It is obtainable in situations where the employer threatens to sack an employee if they do not choose to resign. Or it may be implied from the employer retrieving vital materials or equipment needed to do the job effectively from the employee.
Retail worker forced to resign due to bullying and death threat from boss
A recent Fair Work Commission case that involved an employee who was forced to resign due to bullying is Nathan Christopher Green v KS United Pty Ltd . The case involved an 18-year-old student who was employed by a Japanese restaurant in Sydney.
The student was employed on a casual basis. During his employment, he had experienced a range of bullying behaviour from the store owner. During his initial seven weeks of working at the restaurant, the student told the Fair Work Commission that the store owner regularly patted him on the back while criticising him for errors he had made. He said this happened up to ten times.
At the time, the student did not raise any objection to the store owner’s actions. This was because, despite finding the behaviour unusual, he did not feel as if his safety was threatened.
Store owner threatens to kill student for making his wife stressed
The student’s experience working at the restaurant soon took a turn for the worse, however. It quickly became clear that the store owner’s behaviour was escalating into bullying.
One day, the student was cleaning the tables, and the store owner approached him. He told the student that he was making his wife, who worked at the restaurant, “very stressed.” This was because the student was “not working fast enough.”
The student replied to this comment by saying that he was going to do better today. To which the store owner responded by saying “If you make my wife stressed, I’ll kill you. Okay?” The student nervously laughed, while saying “I hope not.”
Then, a few minutes later, the store owner became physical. While the student was walking past, the store owner placed his hand on his shoulder and lightly pushed him forward. While the push did not force him to fall, it caused the student to stumble for a few steps.
Student is forced to resign due to bullying by store owner
When he arrived home that evening, the student had a realisation. Namely, that all the mistreatment he had received from the store owner had made him feel unsafe. And therefore, it constituted bullying.
He later reached out to Safe Work Australia for guidance, who told him to make a complaint at a local police station. The student did so, but he left the station under the impression that the police considered the bullying a workplace matter.
The student therefore felt that he did not have any other option than to resign. He penned his resignation letter that night. And his father delivered it to the store owner the next day.
Following his resignation, the student made a general protections claim with the Fair Work Commission.
Both parties argue their cases at the Fair Work Commission
The student argued to the Fair Work Commission that he had been forced to resign due to the bullying he had experienced. He said that he had the right to be in a safe workplace that was free from bullying. And that the store owner’s actions had made him fearful of returning to work.
In his defense, the store owner told the Fair Work Commission that he did not mean that he was going to kill the student when he made the threat. As a Korean, he argued that the threat had to be considered in the context of Korean culture. The store owner claimed that in Korea, such things are often said in jest. He also argued that in Korea, the act of patting someone on the back would also be deemed acceptable.
Fair Work Commission refutes store owner’s argument
The store owner’s argument that his Korean culture made his bullying behaviour acceptable did not pass muster with the Fair Work Commission. Fair Work Commission Deputy President Anderson said that it was irrelevant that “in the Korean culture touching is more acceptable or commonplace as part of employee counselling.” Nor that “extreme threats are accepted as mere frivolity.”
The Deputy President emphasised that in Australian workplaces, a manager or business owner did not have the right to “physically handle let alone manhandle an employee.”
Was the student forced to resign due to bullying?
Deputy President Anderson then focused on the gravity of the store owner’s bullying. And whether it had forced the student to resign.
He stated that it was “unreasonable” for the store owner to place his hand on the student’s back while criticising him. The Deputy President also found that pushing the student was “unnecessary and unreasonable.” However, he did not believe that it was “violent.”
The store owner’s kill threat was considered next. The Deputy President believed the threat was made in a “conversational context.” However, he deemed it to be a “stupid remark.”
Having assessed the gravity of the bullying, the Deputy President considered whether it had given the student no other option than to resign. He found that there was “a material risk” that the student could have been “inappropriately touched or pushed” again.
The Deputy President also found that the store owner’s bullying risked “creating a workplace conflict with a senior manager.” This was deemed to not be a “realistic alternative” for the student to pursue. Therefore, it was found that the student was given “no effective choice” but to resign. His general protections claim was therefore able to proceed.
Another Case of Constructive Dismissal: The Story of Lisa Dale
In a recent incident that echoes the complexities of constructive dismissal, Lisa Dale, a former employee of Energetic Cleaning Services Pty Ltd, found herself in a distressing situation. Dale, who initially joined as a part-time bookkeeper before transitioning to full-time employment, discovered her job being advertised on Seek. This discovery was a significant factor leading to her decision to file a general protections application related to her dismissal with the Fair Work Commission (FWC) on 14 July 2023.
Dale’s case highlights the blurred lines between being an independent contractor and an employee, exacerbated by the absence of a written contract. This ambiguity in her employment status added to the complexities of her situation. Her case is a stark reminder of the challenges employees face when their job security is threatened, and the importance of clear employment contracts in protecting both parties’ interests.
This incident serves as another example of how employees can feel compelled to leave their jobs due to actions taken by their employer, fitting the criteria of constructive dismissal. It underscores the need for employees to be vigilant about their rights and for employers to maintain transparency and fairness in their employment practices.
To lodge an application for unfair dismissal you need to:
- Lodge an application within 21 days of dismissal becoming effective.
- Be covered by the national workplace relations system. It doesn’t cover you as an independent contractor, an unpaid volunteer, or for any organization outside the national system in each state and territory.
- Have already been dismissed by your employer.
- Meet eligibility criteria, including the minimum employment period. 6 months, or 12 months if the employer is a small business.
Taking action through the Fair Work Commission is the first step towards achieving justice. Think about the emotional toll that bullying has had on you. Making a claim through the Fair Work Commission can help you achieve the closure you need. If it is successful, it could also see you win compensation from your former employer.
Bullying is a malicious trend that should be eliminated in the workplace. Most companies put measures in place to address these issues. However, they often fall short of stopping bullying and protecting victims.
Even with policies and guidance from their employers, victims of bullying in the workplace often struggle to understand what is happening and how to protect themselves. That is why educating yourself on the law is essential.
Hopefully you now understand what constructive dismissal is and why it’s so important to file an unfair dismissal claim as soon as possible. Unfortunately, you can’t change the past and erase the bullying that you suffered. But what you can control is the ability to take action through the Fair Work Commission.
The Fair Work Commission tribunal provides a middle ground for employers and workers to handle work related issues. You can lodge an unfair dismissal case or seek conciliation. If you are a victim of workplace bullying and have been unfairly dismissed, call us on 1300 766 700 to learn all you need to know in claiming unfair dismissal within the 21 day timeframe.