Spreading gossip about other workers may be bullying under the Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act) according to a recent decision in the Fair Work Commission. Further, repeated swearing at colleagues may also be considered bullying.

Implications for employers

This decision has clarified that at the workplace, repeated spreading of rumours and ‘misinformation’ about co-workers can amount to bullying under the anti-bulling provisions of the FW Act. Employers should ensure their anti-bullying policies or workplace codes of conduct include policies aimed at preventing and discouraging the spread of harmful gossip.

Background

Ms Page applied for a stop-bullying order under section 789FC of the FW Act against a fellow market stall worker (Ms Latham) at the Fremantle Markets. Ms Page also applied for an order against a cleaner who worked at the markets.

Ms Page claimed that Ms Latham often gave her “hostile looks”, stopped responding to her “hellos” or “good mornings”, swore at her and told other stall traders false stories about their dispute. As against the cleaner, Ms Page claimed he threatened to kill her because he believed she was littering soap scraps on the floor. The cleaner denied ever making such a threat and Ms Page conceded it was a one off interaction.

Under section 789FC, a worker who reasonably believes that they have been bullied at work can apply to the Commission for an order to stop the bullying. This provision states that a worker is bullied at work when:

  1. another individual or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker; and
  2. that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Decision

Although Ms Page’s claim against Ms Latham was dismissed for lack of evidence, the Commission stressed that bullying covers a variety of different types of behaviour. This includes “spreading misinformation or ill-will” against other workers. Commissioner Cloghan found that repeatedly swearing at or spreading gossip, including “scurrilous denigration of a worker in the workplace” would certainly fall within the boundary of bullying. However, Ms Latham’s failure to respond to Ms Page’s greetings and her alleged “hostile looks” did not constitute bullying. The Commissioner did make some practical suggestions on this point, noting that if Ms Latham wanted to be left alone then she should desist from giving Ms Page hostile stares and likewise Ms Page should accept the fact that Ms Latham does not want to interact with her.

The Commissioner declined to determine whether the threat, made by the cleaner, was ever made. The rationale in doing so was that, even if proven, the behaviour was not repeated and would not have satisfied section 789FC of the FW Act in any event.

Ms Nadia Page [2015] FWC 5955