6th September, 2018

Addressing workplace bullying before, during, and after it happens

Workplace bullying is an insidious form of abuse that can be tough to see but can destroy your business from within if left unchecked.

This week the national Liberal party has been reckoning with claims of bullying towards female members as new PM Scott Morrison goes about selling his brand to voters.

Aside from the obvious mental anguish and suffering experienced by those who’ve been targeted, it can have a very real effect on productivity and on reputation.

“If you have somebody who’s been bullied in the workplace and nothing’s been done about it, then they tell other people about it, there’s a reputational if not a legal impact if it goes unchecked,” Danielle Owen Whitford told The Pulse.

She’s the founder of Pioneera, which is developing a chatbot designed specifically to help combat workplace stress – after she observed her fair share of it in the corporate sector.

Owen Whitford said the effects of workplace bullying go beyond an individual and can impact a whole business.

“You’ll start to lose productivity immediately, because that person will start to disengage, and then they’ll withdraw from the workplace entirely.

“They’ll start going on sick leave, on stress leave, and eventually they may just leave.

“So, there’s a cost in replacing a training a replacement…there are just a whole bunch of knock-on effects from the organisation’s point of view.”

Obviously, workplace bullying is something that should be stamped out, but it can be hard to know what to do – so how do you clamp down and make sure it doesn’t happen again?


This is where the best solution lies, according to Owen Whitford.

“The work to create a culture where workplace bullying either doesn’t happen or is dealt with quickly begins way before any incident,” she said.

“It’s about creating a culture as a leader where it’s okay and people feel safe to come and talk to you.”

READ: How to create a positive workplace culture

This involves, every so often, going beyond being ‘just a boss’ and being a human being.

For example, they may go home to take care of a sick child one day.

The polite thing to do as a human is to follow up the next day and ask them whether their child is going to be alright.

“Engaging with people as people is not just the right thing to do, it will improve productivity, because people actually want to work for you,” said Owen Whitford.

“But beyond that, you show that you care about the person, genuinely, so they’re more likely to come to you with concerns early if they’re being bullied or they see anybody else being bullied.”

READ: Is workplace conflict killing your business?

During (and what if I can’t see it?)

This is where it can get a bit tricky.

If somebody raises their voice during a meeting or lambasts a colleague, that’s a simple fix.

It’s simply, as a leader, saying that the behaviour is not okay in the clearest terms.

But, bullying can be a bit subtler than that. It can be in the language of an email or exclusion from a social event.

This is where, Owen Whitford said, having an open and honest relationship with your staff comes into play – because often, the person being bullied isn’t going to put up their hand.

“There’s usually shame and stigma associated with it, which is why they’re less likely to go and ask people for help with it. The fear is that has an impact on your career,” she said.

“Whether that happens or it’s perception, that’s the way people in that situation feel.”

So, it may not be about talking to the affected party directly.

“Ask their colleagues about it,” Owen Whitford suggested.

“You don’t want to call anybody out, but ask people how things are going. Talk more broadly about how they think things are going in the office, ask if there’s anything you can do differently.”


Dealing with a bully in your ranks can be confronting in any situation, and the workplace is no different.

If you don’t feel equipped to do so, it’s wise to call in an expert.

If you’re in a larger organisation, your HR department would have tools and processes in place to approach the subject with delicacy and discretion.

But there are also outside experts you can call into the business to help.

Meanwhile, government organisations such as Fair Work have resources available to help – and spell out its place in OH&S legislation.

Either way, it’s going to involve a tough conversation and it’s probably going to be unpleasant.

Luckily, there are also resources available to help you through tough conversations – Owen Whitford recommended Crucial Conversations as a great starting point.

Either way, you need to deal with it – because it will fester if left unchecked.

“The worst thing you can do is ignore it, because it’s not going to go away – it’s not just going to resolve itself,” Owen Whitford said.