Managing bullying and harassment in the workplace

Anyone can be at risk of being bullied and/or harassed, so preventing and reporting bullying and harassment is everyone’s responsibility.

If you are experiencing bullying or harassment and would like to chat to someone, call our confidential 24/7 support line on 1800 377 700.
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Everyone has the right not to be bullied or harassed at work. Bullying and harassment can be extremely harmful and have a negative effect on workers’ health, workplace culture, individual and team work performance, productivity, organisational reputation, and budgets.

Dealing with bullying and harassment at work
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Workplace bullying and harassment should be dealt with in a fair, timely, sensitive, objective and policy-driven way.

National anti-bullying laws and state or territory health and safety bodies help people with bullying and harassment in the workplace. Go to the Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman to find out about the workplace health and safety body in your state or territory.

What is bullying?
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The definition of workplace bullying is:

“Repeated unreasonable behaviour that specifically targets a person or a group of people and, over time, contributes to the target/s becoming increasingly unwell. This can be but is not necessarily associated with discrimination and sexual harassment.” Moira Jenkins, 2013, Preventing and managing workplace bullying and harassment, page 26.

Bullying happens when someone in the workplace repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards another person or group of people and causes a risk to health and safety in the workplace. This behaviour doesn’t have to be related to the person or group’s characteristics and adverse action doesn’t have to have happened.

The Fair Work Act 2009 specifies that bullying occurs when two criteria are met:

  1. a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work, and
  2. the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. This behaviour must occur repeatedly, that is more than once, and must create a risk to health and safety in order for it to be considered bullying.

Australian laws vary by jurisdiction. Some forms of bullying may be a criminal act where you live. In Victoria, serious bullying is a crime punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Elsewhere, aspects of bullying may be prosecuted as a stalking offence. Some forms of cyberbullying may also be a criminal act in contravention of telecommunications laws.

Bullying behaviours
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Bullying behaviour may involve any of the following types of unreasonable behaviour:

  • aggressive or intimidating conduct
  • belittling or humiliating comments
  • spreading malicious rumours
  • teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation ceremonies’
  • exclusion from work-related events
  • unreasonable work expectations, including too much or too little work, or work below or beyond a worker's skill level
  • displaying offensive material, and/or
  • pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner.

Behaviour is unreasonable if a reasonable person might see the behaviours as unreasonable in the circumstances.

What isn’t bullying?
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Some workers think that they are being bullied when they are being performance managed at work.

Your manager can make decisions about poor performance, take disciplinary action, and control the way work is carried out. This management action, if carried out in a reasonable way, is not bullying.

Talking to a trusted person may help you to make sense of your perception of being bullied.

Bullying is not just an employee experience
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People can experience bullying regardless of their employment situation. You may be the owner of a business or a sole trader in a shared business environment and encounter bullying from people you work alongside, manage or even from patients. While there are different definitions of what action you can take under the law, there are supports out there to help you. 

What to do if you think you are being bullied
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Employees

If you think that you are being bullied at work and you are an employee, you should talk to:

  • a supervisor or manager
  • a workplace health and safety representative
  • the human resources department
  • a union or industrial organisation, and/or
  • Dental Practitioner Support.

To understand how your workplace deals with bullying and harassment, read the:

  • policy and procedure on prevention of bullying and harassment
  • organisational values, and 
  • grievance and disciplinary policy and procedure.

Employers or sole traders

If you are an employer or sole trader, you may still experience bullying at work, by colleagues, clients, or other members of the public. You may also have to deal with allegations of bullying between employees or against yourself. If you need advice related to bullying, you should talk to: 

  • Dental Practitioner Support
  • a government business advisor near you, or
  • a legal advisor.
The emotional impact of bullying
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Experiencing bullying and/or being harassed at your workplace can be extremely distressing and harmful to your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

It can be subtle, direct or indirect in nature and raise many complex, challenging and often destructive behaviours, especially if you are a victim or you have witnessed a colleague being bullied. It can be hard to make sense of it.

Trying to understand the behaviour of a bully can be confusing. It could make you feel vulnerable, ashamed and alone. Emotions can be heightened, and responses can start to be programmed to react on ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Feeling alone, shamed, isolated and unsure about how or where to access appropriate, confidential support can add to an individual’s distress.

No matter what form bullying and harassment takes, it is unacceptable and is not tolerated. It is important that you know how and where to access your organisation’s policies and procedures on prevention of bullying and harassment.

Code of conduct
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The Dental Board of Australia (DBA), in partnership with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) has released a Code of conduct for dental practitioners. The DBA code applies to all dental practitioners in Australia, even if your employer also has a Code of conduct. The DBA codes describe the responsibility of all dental practitioners in relation to prevention of bullying and harassment.

Bullying and harassment
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When people repeatedly and intentionally use words or actions against someone or a group of people, it causes distress and risks their wellbeing. Dental practitioners understand that bullying and harassment relating to their practice or workplace is not acceptable or tolerated and that where it is affecting public safety, it may have implications for their registration. Dental practitioners must:

  • never engage in, ignore or excuse such behaviour
  • recognise that bullying and harassment takes many forms, including behaviours such as physical and verbal abuse, racism, discrimination, violence, aggression, humiliation, pressure in decision-making, exclusion and intimidation directed towards people or colleagues
  • understand social media is sometimes used as a mechanism to bully or harass, and that they should not engage in, ignore or excuse such behaviour
  • act to eliminate bullying and harassment, in all its forms, in the workplace, and
  • escalate their concerns if an appropriate response does not occur.

Bullying and harassment is not usually a matter for the DBA and Ahpra. However, if bullying and harassment is at a level where patient safety is at risk or care is being compromised, you can speak to Ahpra about making a complaint. 

What can I do next?
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Dental Practitioner Support is here to talk to you if you are experiencing bullying or harassment. Our service provides free and confidential support to dental practitioners and students Australia-wide. If you would like to speak to someone call us 24/7 on 1800 377 700 or you can request support via email.

If you would like to know a bit more about the service before getting in contact — take a look through accessing support.

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