Workplace bullying policies are an essential workplace tool. They can set understandings of bullying through definitions, and outline expectations and processes for when we uncover bullying in our workplaces work. However, what hasn’t escape me is the ironic failure of many workplace bullying policies that is often found in their opening paragraphs.

I have read a few bullying policies in my role and many in their opening paragraph state something like We don’t tolerate bullying in our workplace or We have a zero tolerance approach to bullying.

The irony is that if you have a bullying incident that has occurred in your workplace, it’s likely that you have been exceptionally tolerant of the bullying behaviour that has occurred. As a result, its time we started thinking of what bullying policies should look like in future.

The Irony Lies in a Longer Term Behavioural Process

The core to understanding the irony of the We don’t tolerate workplace bullying is understanding that it is a medium to long term behavioural process. Core to it’s definition in Australia are three separate elements – unreasonable behaviour that is repeated over a period of time and creates a risk to health and safety.

Generally the longer it goes on, the greater the risk to health and safety and the worse the injury impacts on the targeted individual.

In delving a little deeper into the repeated nature, the limited data that can be found provides some insight. Australian bullying psychologist and specialist, Evelyn Field, suggests that the average length of a bullying episode is 15 months; though acknowledging bullying can last for many years in some instances.

The Australian Workplace Barometer Project 2014/15 reported that the duration of bullying was as follows:


Source: Bullying and Harassment in Australian Workplaces, Results from the Australian Workplace Barometer Project 2014/15

The above data indicates that nearly 47% of bullying incidents have lasted over 7 months. That is a lot of tolerance, not intolerance, to workplace bullying over an extended period of time. When bullying has been going on for weeks, months or years, there were usually many missed opportunities for intervention.

Committing to Workplace Bullying Prevention in Policy

Our workplace bullying policies need to be written with a new understanding and a focus on prevention over reaction because the reactive approach is just to late causing harm to both employee and workplace.

While we will continue to need to include the reactive element in policies (what do you need to do if you are bullied) workplaces need to commit to workplace bullying prevention and develop policies that support this. New polices can focus on a range of proactive approaches including:

  • a commitment to developing organisational leadership to be approachable and creating psychological safety allowing employees to speak up;
  • educating employees on how to identify bullying behaviours early enabling them to act earlier;
  • supporting leaders and employees who create friction and use abrasive behaviours to change their behavioural approaches; and
  • if it does occur, a commitment to understand and learn from incidents to those learnings can be added to future preventative strategies.

It’s time to bring workplace bullying policies into the 21st century and stop rehashing policies that continue the status quo.

So what does your workplace bullying say? Does it have the We don’t tolerate workplace bullying statement?