What is bullying and harassment?

The Human Rights Commission provides the following definitions:

  1. Discrimination
  2. Workplace harassment
  3. Racial harassment
  4. Sexual harassment
  5. Bullying
  6. Victimisation
  7. Things that are not bullying or harressment


Discrimination occurs when someone, or a group of people, is/are treated less favourably than another person or group in the same or similar circumstances, because of a particular characteristic.

Discrimination or harassment on any of the grounds specified in the Human Rights Act (Sex, Marital status, Religious belief, Ethical belief, Colour, Race, Ethnic or national origins, Disability, Age, Political opinion, Employment status, Family status, Sexual orientation) is unlawful when it occurs in the areas specified in the Act (includes employment), subject to specified limitations.

Workplace Harassment

Harassment is any unwanted and unwarranted behaviour that a person finds offensive, intimidating or humiliating and is repeated, or significant enough as a single incident, to have a detrimental effect upon a person’s dignity, safety and well-being. The behaviour can range from that causing slight embarrassment through to criminal acts.

Examples of workplace harassment are:

  • a generally ‘hostile’ work atmosphere of repeated put-downs, offensive stereotypes, malicious rumours, or fear tactics such as threatening or bullying;
  • a general work atmosphere of repeated jokes, teasing, flirting, leering or sleazy ‘fun’;
  • harassing other communication technology users, whether through language, frequency or size of messages;
  • comments or behaviour that express hostility, contempt or ridicule for people of a particular race, age, sexual orientation or any other identified group; and
  • an isolated but significant incident, such as a violent attack or sexual assault.

Racial Harassment

Racial harassment is uninvited behaviour that humiliates, offends or intimidates someone because of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origin. It can involve spoken, written or visual material or a physical act.

It can include:

  • making offensive remarks about a person’s race;
  • mimicking the way a person speaks;
  • making jokes about a person’s race;
  • calling people by racist names; and
  • deliberately pronouncing people’s names wrongly.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment is either a request for sexual activity together with a promise of preferential treatment or a threat of detrimental treatment; or language, visual material, or physical behaviour of a sexual nature. It is behaviour that is unwelcome or offensive to the person subjected to it, repeated or significant, and causes harm to a person’s employment, job performance or job satisfaction, or personal life.

It can include:

  • personally sexually offensive verbal comments;
  • sexual or smutty jokes;
  • repeated comments or teasing about someone’s alleged sexual activities or private life;
  • persistent, unwelcome social invitations, telephone calls or any other form communication technology from workmates at work or at home;
  • following someone home from work;
  • offensive hand or body gestures;
  • unwelcome physical contact – e.g. patting, pinching, touching or putting an arm around another person’s body;
  • provocative visual material – e.g. posters of a sexual nature;
  • sending and receiving pornographic, sexually explicit or offensive material through communication technology;
  • hints or promises of preferential treatment in exchange for sex, or threats of differential treatment if sexual activity is not offered; and
  • sexual assault and/or rape.


Bullying is a persistent misuse of power, whether formal or informal. It is offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour. It makes the recipient or target feel upset, threatened, humiliated, or vulnerable and undermines self-confidence. It has a detrimental effect upon a person’s dignity, safety, self-confidence and well-being and may cause them to suffer stress. It can be overt or covert. Bullying can be exercised by anyone in any position in an organisation.

Overt bullying can include:

  • threats, intimidation, stand over tactics and coercion;
  • verbally abusive or degrading language or gestures;
  • shouting, yelling or screaming;
  • unexplained rages;
  • unjustified criticism and insults, nit-picking and fault-finding without justification;
  • constant humiliation, ridicule and belittling remarks;
  • unjustified threats of dismissal or other disciplinary procedures; and
  • punishment imposed without reasonable justification.

Covert bullying can include acts such as:

  • deliberately overloading an employee with work and imposing impossible deadlines;
  • sabotaging someone’s work by withholding information that is required to fulfil tasks;
  • hiding documents or equipment;
  • constantly changing targets or work guidelines;
  • not providing appropriate resources and training;
  • isolating or ignoring someone on a consistent basis; and
  • changes in the duties or responsibilities of an employee to the employee’s detriment without reasonable justification.

Bullying between people may include teasing, practical jokes, gossiping, excluding co-workers and criticising co-workers on a regular and systematic basis.


Victimisation is treating or threatening to treat someone less favourably because they have made a complaint, or are believed to have made a complaint, of discrimination, harassment, or bullying.

Examples include being:

  • sidelined for training or promotion;
  • snubbed by co-workers; and
  • pressured to drop the idea of a complaint.

What is not Harassment?

The following are examples of behaviours that are not considered to be harassment or bullying:

  • friendly banter, light-hearted exchanges, mutually acceptable jokes and compliments;
  • friendships and relationships where both people consent to the relationship;
  • issuing reasonable instructions and expecting them to be carried out;
  • warning or disciplining someone in line with organisation policy;
  • insisting on high standards of performance in terms of quality, safety and team cooperation;
  • legitimate criticisms about work performance (not expressed in a hostile, harassing manner);
  • giving critical feedback, including in a performance appraisal, and requiring justified performance improvement;
  • assertively expressing opinions that are different from others;
  • free and frank discussion about issues or concerns in the workplace, without personal insults; and
  • targeted EEO policies, parental leave provisions, or reasonable accommodation and provision of work aids for staff with disabilities.

Addressing harassment should not be seen as an attempt to prevent people from doing their jobs or to prevent people from having a reasonable amount of fun or good humour at work. It is about respecting the dignity of people and supporting their right to feel safe and respected at work.

Occasional differences of opinion, conflicts and problems in working relations are part of working life and do not constitute bullying.

Workplace counselling, managing underperformance, or other legitimate action in accordance with policy and procedures, are not bullying or harassment.

People may sometimes cause offence or harm unintentionally. A principle of harassment is that it is not the intention, or the behaviour, but the way it is received and the effect it has on the person.

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