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Workplace harassment and bullying

Harassment and bullying at work ruins lives and destroys workplaces. It’s up to you and your employer to put a stop to it.

Types of harassment and bullying

Workplace harassment

Workplace Harassment is sometimes called bullying, but they are one and the same thing.

According to the Prevention of Workplace Harassment Code of Practice 2004 (PDF, 271 KB), workplace harassment is when someone repeatedly does or says something to you that:

  • is unwelcome and is not invited
  • offends, intimidates, humiliates or threatens you
  • would offend, intimidate, humiliate or threaten most people if it happened to them.

According to the Prevention of Workplace Harassment Code of Practice 2004, it is not workplace harassment when someone does or says something to you:

  • once (single incidents should not be ignored or allowed, but they are not considered harassment)
  • that is discrimination or sexual harassment (unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment are covered under different legislation)
  • that is reasonable management action carried out in a fair way.

You can be harassed by:

  • your employer
  • your co-worker
  • a group of your co-workers
  • someone who works for you
  • a client or customer
  • a member of the public.

Behaviours that may be a part of workplace harassment include where someone regularly:

  • insults you loudly, especially when others are around to hear
  • threatens to punish you for no reason
  • emails you, leaves you messages by phone or other electronic means that are offensive or intimidating
  • sabotages your work (e.g. by giving you wrong information on purpose)
  • excludes you from workplace meetings or social get togethers
  • spreads false rumours about you
  • humiliates you through gestures, sarcasm, criticism and insults, especially in front of others.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual attention. You can be sexually harassed by anyone. Sexual harassment does not have to be repeated or ongoing to be against the law.

Sexual harassment examples

According to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (PDF, 800.2 KB) sexual harassment is any:

  • unwelcome physical touching
  • sexual or suggestive comments, jokes or taunts
  • unwelcome requests for sex
  • the display of sexual material (e.g. photos or pictures)
  • sexual reading matter (e.g. emails, faxes or letters).

Discrimination

According to the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland you can be discriminated against across a number of matters including but not limited to:

  • your age
  • your gender
  • an impairment
  • pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • your race
  • your religion
  • your sexuality.

Find out more about discrimination and your rights.

Identifying and preventing harassment

Signs of harassment

Signs that your co-workers might be feeling harassed include:

  • people taking more sick days
  • people moving on to other jobs soon after starting
  • people seeming withdrawn and isolated
  • breakdown of relationships between staff and management
  • people showing less loyalty and commitment.

If your co-worker is showing signs of being harassed:

  • do not stand by and watch or encourage any harassment you witness toward them—stand up for them
  • talk to them about what is going on
  • support them through the complaint process if they choose to report the harassment.

How to prevent harassment

The Prevention of Workplace Harassment Code of Practice 2004 provides guidance on steps workplaces should take to manage the risk of workplace harassment. These may also help prevent other types of harassment (e.g. sexual harassment and discrimination) at work.

Workplaces should:

  • define workplace harassment for all staff and the impact it has on people (see the workplace harassment information tool as an example).
  • have a prevention policy in place and always follow it. Your workplace’s policy should be:
    • easy to understand
    • displayed where all staff can read it
    • consistent with other workplace policies and objectives
    • relevant to the workplace and the people who work in it
    • developed with staff
  • have informal and formal systems to handle complaints
  • have good performance management and communication systems in place
  • train and educate all staff on harassment so that:
    • they are more aware of their own actions and the actions of those around them
    • they know about the workplace’s prevention and complaint handling procedures
    • they know how to report harassment complaints and how the complaints will be responded to
    • managers know how to identify early warning signs and respond
    • managers develop people management skills.

You should talk to your manager or human resources area if these practices are not in place in your workplace.

If you are harassed

Sometimes harassment can be a criminal offence. If you have experienced violence, assault, or stalking you should report abuse directly to police.

If the behaviour you experience is not violence, assault or stalking, you can:

  • talk to the person
  • seek support
  • report the harassment at your workplace
  • make a harassment complaint outside of your workplace.

Talk to the person

If you believe you are being harassed, you can ask the person to stop and let them know that what they are doing is unreasonable. This lets the person know that their behaviour is not OK and gives them a chance to change.

If you are thinking of talking to the person you should:

  • assess how safe you will be if you talk to them about the issue
  • talk to someone else about how you plan to talk to the person – this may be someone at your workplace who has specific training as a contact officer
  • plan what you will say
  • remain calm and focus on their behaviour, not the person
  • aim to solve the problem, not to retaliate

Seek support

You can get support from a nominated contact officer, a manager, supervisor or the employee assistance service in your workplace. You can also get professional support from Lifeline or Beyondblue.

Report the harassment at your workplace

You can report the incidents informally or formally in most workplaces.

If you believe someone has harassed you, before reporting it you should:

  • define your concerns and desired outcome
  • weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of resolving your complaint informally or formally
  • learn about the support available to you from your workplace and external agencies (e.g. counselling).

If you need help with any of the above, see your workplace harassment prevention policy, it should tell you who in your workplace you can talk to. If it does not, talk to the person responsible for human resources or industrial relations.

Be aware that if you make a false or misleading complaint about someone’s behaviour (that is harmful or trivial) there may be serious consequences for you. Your workplace harassment prevention policy or code of conduct should outline the possible consequences for false claims.

Informal complaint responses

The aim of an informal complaint response is to resolve the issue in the workplace with as little conflict or distress as possible for everyone involved.

The benefits of resolving workplace harassment/bullying informally are:

  • the process is normally quick
  • extensive proof is not necessary
  • it is easier to maintain confidentiality and keep working relationships intact.

If you choose to resolve your complaint informally within your workplace, see your workplace harassment prevention policy, it should tell you who in your workplace you should make your complaint to. If it does not, talk to the person responsible for human resources or industrial relations.

Mediation

Mediation is where a trained, professional third party works with you and the person who your complaint is about, as a middle person, to resolve the situation. Mediation is a process that your workplace may use early in the conflict. This process can prevent the problem from becoming much worse. There are some instances where mediation is not appropriate (e.g. where the nature of the conflict is destructive or violent, or where the parties cannot equally participate in the process).

Mediators should:

  • be impartial, keep the conversation confidential and be acceptable to everyone involved
  • facilitate or guide the discussion
  • encourage everyone involved to talk about the issues and how they could be resolved.

If responding to the behaviours informally is unsuccessful and you continue to be harassed or concerned, you can request that your complaint be responded to formally. If both options are unsuccessful, you may consider making your complaint to an external agency.

Formal complaint responses

If you choose to resolve your complaint formally within your workplace, your complaint will go through a complaint handling system (as long as your workplace has one). The person responsible for human resources or industrial relations in your workplace should be able to tell you about your workplace’s complaint handling system.

Your workplace’s complaints handling system should include:

  • a reporting procedure
  • an investigation procedure
  • a complaint resolution procedure
  • an appeals process.

The complaints handling system should also be based on the principles of natural justice (e.g. the person who is being accused of harassment should be treated as innocent until it is proved otherwise).

Generally, once you have formally reported the harassment, your workplace will:

  1. investigate the issue quickly to work out the facts
  2. prepare a formal report
  3. take any necessary action (e.g. manage the performance of the person who’s negative workplace behaviour has been confirmed).

If the formal approach is not an option, as your workplace does not have a complaints handling system, and you continue to be harassed or concerned, you should make an informal complaint. If both options are unsuccessful, consider making your complaint to an external agency.

Make a harassment complaint outside your workplace

Most external agencies will not accept a harassment complaint unless you have tried to resolve it in your workplace first (through either an informal or formal process).

If you believe you have been harassed and your workplace’s processes haven’t been helpful, you can make your complaint to, or ask advice from, one the following agencies.

Australian Council of Trade Unions

Trade Unions provide advice to members. If you are a member of a union, contact your union directly or the Australian Council of Trade Unions for advice.

Department of Education, Training and Employment

The Department of Education and Training respond to apprentice and trainee complaints about:

  • workplace harassment (not sexual harassment)
  • issues that occur in training situations (e.g. while you are doing a traineeship or apprenticeship in Queensland).

Contact Training Services at the Department of Education, Training and Employment to make your complaint.

Fair Work Australia

Fair Work Australia (FWA) is the national workplace relations tribunal that aims to resolve a range of collective and individual workplace disputes through conciliation, mediation and in some cases arbitration.

Contact Fair Work Australia for advice.

Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission and Anti-Discrimination Tribunal

The Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland and Anti-Discrimination Tribunal accepts and conciliates complaints about discrimination and sexual harassment.

Make your complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland. If they cannot help you resolve it, you can then make your complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal.

You do not need to try to resolve your complaint in your workplace before approaching the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission.

Contact the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland to make your complaint.

Queensland Industrial Relations Commission

The Queensland Industrial Relations Commission has jurisdiction to hear and make decisions about workplace issues concerning public sector and local government employees. If you work for the government, you may be able to lodge a notification of industrial dispute about the workplace harassment.

Contact the Queensland Industrial Relations commission for more information.

Queensland Working Womens Service

The Queensland Working Womens Service provides a free and confidential telephone service for women about work related issues. They can provide you with information about workplace harassment and advise you about what you should do. The service does not take complaints.

Contact the Queensland Working Womens Service for advice (non-Queensland Government link).

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland can investigate complaints that are:

  • about workplace harassment (not sexual harassment)
  • covered by the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and the Prevention of Workplace Harassment Code of Practice 2004.

You will need to contact the Workplace Health and Safety Infoline on 1300 369 915 for an information package, which will provide you with details on how to write and send in your complaint.

It’s OK to Complain

If your complaint falls outside the scope of the other agencies, or you cannot work out where you should be making your complaint, you can contact It’s OK to complain. It’s OK to complain can give you information about where you should be making your complaint.

It’s OK to complain for advice.

Last updated
8 October 2013

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