Psst have you heard? Gossip can amount to bullying

Spreading gossip about other workers may be bullying under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (‘the Act’) according to a recent decision in the Fair Work Commission. Commissioner Cloghan also suggested that repeated swearing at colleagues may amount to bullying.

In Ms Nadia Page [2015] FWC 5955, Ms Page applied for a stop-bullying order under Act against a fellow market stall worker (Ms Latham) at the Fremantle Markets. Ms Page claimed that Ms Latham:

  • often gave her ‘hostile looks’
  • stopped responding to her “hellos” or “good mornings”
  • told her to “get f**ed” and
  • told other stall traders false stories about their dispute.

Although Ms Page’s claim against Ms Latham (and an additional claim against another co-worker) was dismissed in the end for lack of evidence, the Commissioner 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.

What does this mean for your managers?

Managers or business owners may want to ensure their anti-bullying policies or workplace codes of conduct include policies aimed at preventing and discouraging the spread of harmful gossip. It is important to understand that at your workplace, repeatedly spreading rumours and ‘misinformation’ about your co-workers can amount to bullying in the eyes of the Fair Work Commission just as if you had said those things directly. While repeatedly swearing at your colleague may seem an obvious case of bullying to most, it might be less obvious that you are ‘bullying’ by sharing disparaging rumours about your co-workers.

Managers and business owners should also be aware that, in some circumstances, employees not wanting to interact with one another, may not give rise to a successful bullying claim.

You can read the full case here.

Photo credit – flickr.com

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