Bullying behaviour comes in all shapes and sizes.  Identifying and deciding how to respond to diverse bullying behaviour by a worker (or workers) can create challenges for employers.

Recent headlines have cautioned that unfriending on Facebook could be considered bullying. That this seemingly innocuous action has been elevated to “bullying” has been the subject of many concerned water-cooler discussions since hitting the mainstream press.

Another case making a splash involved a death threat, which was found not to constitute bullying.  Yet, at least at first glance, a death threat is surely worse than hitting the “Unfriend” button.

The reason behind these two diverse outcomes is that the Facebook-user’s conduct met the test of bullying, while the conduct of the cleaner who made the death threat did not.  Bullying depends on whether

  • there has been repeated unreasonable behaviour towards the worker (or group of workers of which the worker is a member); and
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

The unfriending was part of repeated unreasonable behaviour towards another worker, while the death threat was a “one-off”.

For employers, identifying whether particular conduct counts as bullying under the legislation is only one consideration.  There will sometimes be instances where behaviour does not constitute bullying under the legislation, but still breaches an employer’s policy, or work, health and safety law.

Employers need to address inappropriate behaviour, and ensure they are complying with their obligation to provide a safe workplace. At the front-end, this is done via culture, policies and procedures that set expectations of conduct, and at the back end, by taking disciplinary action where necessary and by being transparent when doing so.

Ultimately, once particular behaviour of concern is identified, the circumstances should inform the employer’s response.  Unfriending will not always constitute bullying or inappropriate behaviour requiring the employer to intervene.  Likewise, a threat could constitute bullying, if it is part of a pattern of unreasonable conduct.  And even if it is not repeated, inappropriate conduct could still require the employer to take action to ensure a healthy and safe workplace.