A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission has shed further light on what will and will not constitute bullying behaviour under the stop bullying jurisdiction enshrined in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

What happened?

An employee of a soap market stall in Fremantle Markets (Ms P) sought a stop bullying order against an employee and owner of a neighbouring market stall (Ms L), as well as against an employee of the company contracted to clean the Fremantle Markets (Mr V).

The bulk of the allegations made by Ms P were levelled at Ms L.  In particular, Ms P asserted that Ms L often stared at her in a hostile way, told her to ‘f*** off’, and spread rumours about her around the markets.  Ms P also alleged that Mr V had threatened to kill her because she was leaving soap crumbs on the floor.

With regard to the alleged conduct of Mr V, the Commission observed that, if it occurred, it was a one-off incident.  The lack of repeated unreasonable behaviour by Mr V towards Ms P meant that the conduct could not meet the definition of being ‘bullied at work’ and no stop bullying order could therefore be made.

The Commission also declined to make a stop bullying order in respect of Ms L, in circumstances where, despite denying the other conduct, she conceded that she had stared at Ms P with a hostile look.

The Commission observed that bullying can take many forms and that it was ‘uncontroversial to say that spreading misinformation or ill-will against others’ constitutes bullying.

Without concluding that these words were said, the Commission observed that telling someone to ‘f*** off’ ‘departs from normal social interaction in the workplace’ and would fall within the definition of bullying, if repeated.

Finally, the Commission also observed that criticising and gossiping about others at work is also capable of constituting bullying - the ‘scurrilous denigration of a worker in the workplace would certainly fall within the boundary of bullying.

Without ordering it, the Commission suggested that Ms L desist from staring at Ms P and that the management of Fremantle Markets, who were aware of the enmity between Ms P and Ms L, implement some policies about the expectations with regards to the interactions between workers on stalls within the workplace.

Lessons for employers

This case demonstrates that a wide range of conduct has the potential to constitute bullying.  It also demonstrates, however, that workers can potentially be bullied at work by others besides their immediate colleagues.  Businesses need to be alert to this and should institute measures, such as appropriate policies and training, to protect against such conduct.