Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen, writes about the report on workplace bullying in Australia by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment.

Bullying in the workplace – a timely report

This week saw the tabling of an important report on workplace bullying in Australia by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment. Bullying in the workplace is a topic that often generates polarised discussion. Some fail to appreciate that bullying can occur in any workplace, while others strongly believe that bullying is a problem in every workplace.

The Standing Committee report, however, provides a comprehensive summary of the vexed issue of what constitutes bullying. It also reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of the legislative and regulatory frameworks that frame institutional responses to allegations and the impact of bullying. Importantly, it provides a set of well-considered and balanced recommendations in relation to the way ahead. I would encourage everyone – staff member, supervisor, manager, director or member of the executive – to download a copy and browse through it.

So why would I recommend it? The Standing Committee report is timely for the University as we are currently reviewing our array of institutional policies and procedures around bullying, harassment and complaints; and making sure that we have contemporary, timely and effective mechanisms in place to prevent bullying in a culture of zero tolerance for this behaviour. It is always important for any workplace to understand the spectrum of behaviours that do and do not constitute bullying. At what point, for instance, does a robust academic discussion – an essential component of being part of the global academy – move beyond the boundaries of reasonable debate and into the domain of bullying?

A national definition for workplace bullying

The report recognises some of the difficulties faced by organisations and employees in working in the absence of a nationally consistent definition of workplace bullying. The report suggests that an appropriate definition of workplace bullying might be “repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety.”  Establishing an agreed understanding of what constitutes bullying is clearly helpful for organisations to develop the support mechanisms that are needed to prevent the risk of workplace bullying and address instances when it does occur.  In this context the Committee recommended that the Commonwealth develop a national advisory service that provides practical and operational advice on what does and does not constitute workplace bullying, and offers self-assessment and guidance materials to workers and employers to determine whether behaviour meets the workplace bullying definition.

The report also draws attention to the need for Safe Work Australia to progress the current draft Code of Practice: Managing the Risk of Workplace Bullying to a final version so that it can then be adopted. These appear strong practical recommendations, which are of value to large and small organisations alike.

The report recognises that the definition of workplace bullying should include exemptions for reasonable performance management or disciplinary and management action by an employer. The report also cites evidence to support that workplace bullying can occur ‘downwards, upwards or in a horizontal manner ie. amongst co-workers’. This nuanced view acknowledges the complexities of human behaviour and that ‘Notions of power need to be viewed in a broad manner, rather than in simple hierarchies’.

Maintaining privacy

The report also acknowledges the difficulties that institutions face in balancing the principles of confidentiality and transparency in bullying investigations. Many institutions, including our own, hold firmly to the principle of maintaining the confidentiality of staff and identifying details of their case to protect their reputation in the face of what may turn out to be unfounded or unsubstantiated claims of bullying.  Thus when journalists call trying to establish the identity of an alleged bully  – usually after they have been ‘tipped off’ – we will always act to protect the confidentiality of the individual in question even if it means withstanding the implication that the institution has ‘something to hide’.

The report examines the importance of organisations finding the balance between maintaining confidentiality and making all staff aware in a transparent manner that actions are being taken. This is a difficult balance for any organisation and one that ultimately relies on establishing a culture in which it is understood – through actions as well as good policies and procedures – that there is ‘zero tolerance’ for bullying.  This of course starts with having a workplace where a Code of Conduct and related policies and procedures are not simply institutional ‘documents’ but a real guide to help support thoughtful responses when discussions get fraught.

One of the interesting issues raised in the report is the importance of the behaviours and skill sets of our ‘middle-managers’ given they are often the first to engage in the management of complaints around bullying when they occur.  It is clear that we need to do more to support our Heads of Schools and Directors of Units who, when allegations of bullying are raised, can be exposed to what is cited in the report as  “an escalating drama spiral with a number of players, or stakeholders, in varying roles playing out the ‘story’.”

In instances when bullying has occurred, it is clear we need a more robust framework that allows a response that is professional, respectful and supportive of all involved. Our Acting Director of Human Resource Services, Tina Crawford, is championing the review of our policy framework and the structures that enable or impede good case management. HRS is also developing a tool kit to support managers engage in the ‘difficult’ conversations in a constructive and positive way. There is also always a need to protect and support all parties in cases of alleged workplace bullying, particularly after investigations are completed, and an understanding that those who need support will include not only the person who have been bullied, but also those who may be subject to continuing unfounded claims that they are bullies – sometimes in the public domain.


In this context, the comments of the Standing Committee in relation to the controls around cyberbullying were perhaps the less developed component in a comprehensive report. Anne Summers, at her Human Rights and Social Justice lecture at the University, recently detailed the utterly unacceptable online bullying of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  This together with the recent vicious attacks by ‘cyber trolls’ on Charlotte Dawson in social media have suddenly shone a light on the subterranean and cowardly world of anonymous online bullying. It appears that trashing one’s colleague from the comfort of one’s sofa on the pretence that anonymity is somehow a necessary protection may represent the next frontier of workplace bullying.

Resources to prevent workplace bullying

I look forward to seeing the outcome of the work on our policies and procedures and the development of more sophisticated resources and tool kits to help our leaders, managers and staff continue to work to prevent and address workplace bullying. In the meantime, let’s continue to build social capital by being positive and resilient in the face of the myriad of issues – great and small – that can come up in anyone’s working day. Let’s remember to pause before we take out our frustration on the hapless colleague next through our door or hit the send button on the email composed in the heat of the moment. Let’s also recognise that at times our colleagues may need extra support and understanding to deal with the highs and lows of working life.

Bullying can happen in any workplace and at any level. With the right culture and the right framework, we will continue to ensure that at UoN we are minimising the risk of bullying occurring and, when it does, our response is timely, professional and supportive of everyone involved.


Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen

Download a copy of the House of Representatives Standing Committee Report into Workplace Bullying

At the University of Newcastle, we value and celebrate diversity and are committed to providing a safe and respectful environment for our staff and students.  Our Code of Conduct  commits our University community to the values of honesty, fairness, trust, accountability and respect.

Under the Healthy University strategy we have refreshed our Diversity and Inclusiveness Policy.  To support this policy we have developed a useful online guide for our staff community that includes information on what is workplace bullying, informal ways to deal with bullying, formal mechanisms to report bullying, helpful resources and information for students. 

Related links