There are many different definitions or descriptions of workplace bullying, though there is growing consensus on the most accepted inclusions in the definition. Different jurisdictions around the world have begun to define workplace bullying for their legislative and industrial frameworks. Much work has been done on this recently in Australia.

Typically, bullying at work is regarded as repeated unreasonable behaviour, where the behaviours create a risk to health and safety (see Caponecchia & Wyatt, 2009, 2011; Safe Work Australia, 2013; House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2012).

Sometimes a power imbalance between the individuals involved is included in definitions of bullying  This power imbalance may be based on position in the organisation, experience, age, the length of time the person has been with the organisation, social position, or other factors that create a power difference between the person perpetrating the bullying behaviour and the person (or people) who are targeted by the bullying behaviour. However, power imbalance is more descriptive, rather than being an essential part of the definition of bullying, because power imbalances are likely to exist in some form or other in many interpersonal reactions. They are not specific or unique to bullying, so they are more of use in describing, rather than defining, workplace bullying. The issue of intent has similar problems: it is sometimes referred to when defining bullying, but it is very difficult to prove, and so is often not really considered in research studies nor reports of bullying in the workplace. 

Many sources provide descriptions of some of the acts that could be considered to be bullying, if they also meet the criteria above. These include (but are not limited to):

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments 

  • unjustified criticism or complaints

  • excluding someone from workplace activities (social or physical isolation)

  • withholding information that is vital for effective work performance

  • setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines

  • setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level

  • denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources such that it has a detriment to the worker

  • spreading negative rumours or false information about someone

  • changing work arrangements, e.g.  rosters or leave, to inconvenience a particular worker(s) excessive scrutiny at work (eg. Surveillance, micro-management, monitoring)

Taken from: Safe Work Australia (2013) Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying (November 2013).

Typically, a systemic approach is taken to understand the factors that contribute to workplace bullying, which includes factors in the organisation's approach to managing such behaviours (culture, reporting systems, procedures and policies), as well as the wider socio-cultural environment, and features of the individuals involved (see Einarsen et al., 2003; Caponecchia & Wyatt, 2009). Work design factors can create an environment in which workplace bullying may be more likely. These refer to issues such as 

  • levels of control and autonomy

  • workload, work pace and schedule

  • role conflict and ambiguity

  • supervision and support

  • interpersonal relationships