abusers, victims, bystanders
This page considers questions about bullying in offline
and online environments.
It covers -
What is bullying? Is it occurring in a place near you,
or to someone that you know? Is it, indeed, something
that you perpetrate or of which you are an accomplice
(whether through fear, appetite, indifference or simple
lack of imagination)?
The preceding pages of this note suggested that bullying
is a common, although often stigmatised or unacknowledged,
part of many social relationships – discernible
in the workplace, during education, in family life and
in environments such as amateur team sports. It is just
as apparent in courts and legal chambers, university faculty
staff rooms and police squad cars as it is on the factory
production line or the sharp end of a primary school playground.
A theme throughout this note is that characterisations
of bullying vary. In making sense of bullying it is important
to recognise that some perpetrators and targets (aka victims)
do not articulate what is taking place as bullying. Law’s
recognition of bullying and remedies for bullying vary.
That is partly because some behaviour is considered to
be acceptable or trivial. It is partly because some activity
is addressed through a range of statute and common law
(eg as harassment under discrimination statutes or as
assault and theft under the criminal code), discussed
in more detail later in this note.
That variation may reflect an emphasis on outcomes, rather
than activity. It is also because people experience bullying
in different ways. Some laugh it off, others are stricken.
Accounts thus encompass nausea, a curdling of the spirit,
amusement, terror, a blow to the heart, a burden that
is wearying but must be endured. Not all bullying lasts
or disfigures. Some leaves a permanent scar, including
scars that an apprentice chef may or may not consider
to be acceptable as the price of becoming a future Gordon
On occasion what is tagged as bullying may be what the
most devout human rights or anti-discrimination advocate
would regard as appropriate school or workplace discipline.
That is because growing social consciousness of the diversity
and seriousness of bullying – partly fostered by
media coverage of litigation and by a proliferation of
'stop bullying' sites and self-help texts – has
led some people to appropriate the language for their
own 'culture of complaint', an appropriation that leads
some critics to say "toughen up, princess" and
others to note that such self-indulgence denies the true
severity of the suffering experienced by some targets
and their families or associates.
Bullying is diverse. It can involve being lowered head-first
into a toilet bowl, pushed off a bus, punched in the nose
or relieved of pocket-money and lunch. If you are an apprentice
it can be as mundane as always having to do the cleaning
up, as archaic as homosocial 'scragging' or as dangerous
as being doused with inflammable liquid or locked in a
porta-loo that is then set on fire. Bullying by senior
lawyers has included public tirades or recurrent sending
of pornographic email and unwanted touching. Bullying
in government agencies has ranged from executives exposing
themselves and demanding sexual favours through to setting
impossible work targets or threatening to terminate a
subordinate’s employment. It can be as subtle and
painful as simply excluding a colleague from workplace
Bullying of colleagues and subordinates predates the web,
the steam engine and the printing press. It is evident
in pharaonic Egypt and in classical Rome. Robert Darnton's
The Great Cat Massacre (New York: Basic Books
1984) describes angry French apprentices on the loose
in the 1730s. Philip Leon's Bullies and Cowards: The
West Point Hazing Scandal, 1898-1901 (Westport: Greenwood
Press 2000) considers boys in grey. George Orwell's Down
and Out in Paris and London (1933) features misery
in the service industries that is echoed in White
Slave: The Godfather of Modern Cooking (London: Orion
2006) by Marco White and Kitchen Confidential (New
York: HarperCollins 2001) by Anthony Bourdain. Laments
about the bastardry of managerial bullies on the production
line in 1920s Detroit are echoed in accounts of what it’s
like to be a netslave in a large callcentre.
In contemporary society it is evident in all types of
organisations, including police and military forces, universities,
religious orders, philanthropic and advocacy bodies, government
agencies and businesses.
It may centre on recruits - people who are younger, less
experienced, have a lower status and are less likely to
complain (or merely be heard if they complain). It may
instead involve the 'boss from hell' or what one of our
contacts described as the "cow in the next cubicle",
with bullying directed at peers rather than subordinates,
people with experience rather than novices.
It may be downwards (supervisers being horrid to subordinates)
or upwards (the ostensibly supervised mistreating people
higher up the institutional food chain, sometimes with
support from the target’s own superviser).
Some bullies - and bystanders - have sought to justify
themselves by claiming that the target 'had attitude',
an excuse dismissed by the father of one victim who stated
that of course his son had an attitude problem after three
years of physical injury and threats on/off school premises.
Misbehaviour in workplaces may be ongoing or may be generational,
with 'juniors' undergoing ill-treatment as part of initiation
ceremonies and training, often going on to inflict the
same rite of passage on the next cohort of recruits. It
may involve a group or targeting of an isolated individual.
Many organisations have recognised the undesirability
of bullying, on the basis of -
for human rights
of equal opportunity, workplace safety, crimes and other
to litigation regarding physical and psychological injury
erosion of a corporate profile through negative publicity
waste of resources implicit in not using people to their
full potential (and in addressing litigation, resignation
or other responses by those who have been bullied).
is clear that some organisations, including bodies in
Australia that espouse a commitment to best practice regarding
human resource management and human rights, have articulated
antibullying principles and protocols but have failed
to effectively implement such policies.
harassment and violence
Bullying does not necessarily involve physical assault
(eg punching, stabbing, unauthorised removal of clothing),
theft or destruction and damage to property.
It may be purely verbal, including threats of violence
and denigration that is specific to the target or to a
group of people. It might be 'silent' bullying, ranging
from physically isolating the target - in one instance
with her face to the wall to "toughen her up"
- to loading the person with impossible tasks or deliberately
hiding files needed by that target.
Moira Rayner commented that bullying
can include sexual harassment -
is not a feminist construct: sexual harassment is a
particularly pernicious form of bullying, one with a
sexual element - repeated or gross acts or words of
a sexual nature that are not welcome nor invited, which
a reasonable person would expect to have the effect
they do - to intimidate, insult or humiliate the person
subjected to them. It is bullying: the misuse of relative
power to introduce a sexual element, in a frightening
or shameful way. Because it is specifically prohibited
under equal opportunity laws, and the courts have sheeted
vicarious liability home for it, managers - especially
those with US experience - are starting to count the
cost of not preventing bullying.
- violent or otherwise - is no respector of gender. Case
law demonstrates that female adults are known to bully
female and male colleagues, just like male bullies. One
example is David Brown v Macedon Ranges Shire Council
-  AIRC 117 (27 June 2008) here.
Female children have proved adept at bullying each other.
actors and audiences
Bullying has traditonally been conceptualised in terms
of bullies (perpetrators) or victims (targets). Some bullying
clearly takes place in isolation. Other bullying has a
social setting. In understanding bullying as a process,
minimising its occurrence and ameliorating its impact
it is useful to consider both perpetrators, targets and
One reason is because much of the psychological pain associated
with bullying is attributable to what the target sees
as the indifference of bystanders or their complicity
- passive or active - because those bystanders -
internalised the bully's value system (the target can
be bullied and therefore deserves to be bullied)
frightened of the perpetrator and thus will not 'come
to the rescue' of the target.
bullying has been interpreted as a response by insecure,
awkward boys (often boys with learning difficulties and
a difficult home life) ... ie dealing with their own misery
or inadequacy by making others miserable, gaining acclaim
and acceptance by excluding others from a peer group.
As the following pages note, that interpretation is problematical.
Some childhood bullies are "among the most popular
and socially connected children", whithout an apparent
need to compensate. Some adult bullies appear to engage
in bullying on a hedonic basic - it gives them pleasure
and relieves boredom - rather than from insecurity and
How much childhood bullying is taking place? Where is
it taking place? Has it moved from playground taunts and
fisticuffs to '24/7 digital harassment' via SMS, email
and social software sites?
Answers to those questions are uncertain. One reason is
that much bullying is not reported by the victim/parents
and if reported does not gain public attention, being
dealt with privately or shrugged off as part of the vicissitudes
of growing up. Another reason is that there are definitional
disagreements, exacerbated by poor data collection and
publishing. You cannot, for example, obtain comprehensive
Australian statistics from a national registry or from
reports published by state education departments and private
There is similarly no comprehensive national database
about workplace bullying, unsurprising given variations
in definition and law and the reluctance of many targets
and bystanders to report what takes place.
Much bullying appears to involve difference, with people
being targeted because they lack what the perpetrators
and audiences considered to be a required attribute.
A disturbing aspect of both childhood and workplace bullying
is thus harassment on the basis of ethnicity or religious
affiliation, despite protection for diversity and human
rights under national and state/territory discrimination
Another disturbing aspect is bullying centred on (or expressed
in terms of) the target's gender or sexual affinity.
In the schoolyard it is thus common to encounter denigration
with a homophobic flavour, with both gay and straight
youths being harassed because of their choice of friends
and supposed attributes such as cowardice and athletic
incompetence (gay males) or aggression and buzzcuts (gay
That nastiness is not restricted to online/offline kids,
with young adults in Canberra and Sydney using terms such
as "that's so gay" (ie lame) and reports of
entrenched bullying within the worplace on the basis of
sexual preference. A May 2007 YouGov survey in the UK
for example suggested that one in six workers in Britain
had witnessed a colleague being physically or verbally
bullied at work over their sexuality.
On occasion UK courts have sent strong messages to managers
that homophobia and other discrimination will not be tolerated,
with management consultant Rob Whitfield for example being
awarded over £35,000 damages after bullying at waste
disposal firm Cleanaway where it was suggested he would
"earn more money working as a rent boy".
Bullying ultimately reflects the expectations of perpetrators,
bystanders and targets. Those expectations are affected
by culture, personal history, social networks. law and
the specific environment in which bullying takes place.
Some industries, for example, continue to experience significant
bullying despite recurrent legal action and negative publicity,
with actors and audiences exlaining "that's just
the way it is".
One example is the apparent prevalence of bullying and
discriminatory behaviour among butchers (a result of meat
industry cultural norms and employment structures), for
which see Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union
v Mackay Casings Pty Ltd (AIRC 1996).
Another example is the history of workplace bullying in
'initiation' of apprentices - for example incidents where
a novice has been burnt after being locked in a toilet
cubicle that is set on fire after work mates pour paint
thinner under the door - and in hazing or other brutalisation
of military recruits, highlighted in later pages of this
note. For some of those actors - and people who should
have intervened - the action was not bullying ... it was
'hijinks' or 'high spirits' or 'nothing remarkable'.
A third example is the response by teachers and school
administrators to some childhood bullying, with adults
ignoring psychological and physical attacks on the basis
that "it will make a man out of him" or "that's
what children do" (what children 'do' and do not
'do' of course being a social construct).
Expectations change. Australian law now longer accepts
systemic sexual harassment in most workplaces and as the
discussion of cases later in this note indicates is taking
a tougher stance on the bullying of children.
Many responses to bullying - and the scale of damages
or penalties where litigation is successful - centre on
injury to the target (and to associates) rather than on
the activity that resulted in the action. In responding
to bullying by children most litigation appears to be
directed at custodians, rather than perpetrators - both
because schools often have deeper pockets and because
courts are reluctant to punish minors.
That injury, as highlighted later in this note, may be
purely physical, with incidents in which people have been
burnt, stabbed, scalped, suffered broken limbs or eye
damage, experienced dermatological problems when painted
or otherwise exposed to paint and other substances.
For many targets the injury is psychological, with people
experiencing difficulty relating to their peers, having
profound ongoing depression or anxiety states and problems
with concentration. Some withdraw from school because
of bullying, or cease to perform at school, with a resultant
loss of future employment prospects and income. Some are
bullied and incapacitated at work, also suffering loss
of prospects ... a loss recognised by Australian courts
in some damages awards.
Although Australian law arguably gives little recognition
to the suffering of a target's associates (in particular
family) it is important to acknowledge that the people
around a target also suffer pain, stress, inconvenient
and cost (eg time and money spent dealing with a distressed
kid, medical and legal consultations, visits to teachers
and school administrators).
Legal frameworks regarding bullying vary considerably
in terms of what is articulated and what is applied.
Broadly, there is international agreement that bullying
is 'a bad thing'. There is however disagreement about
what constitutes bullying, with often strongly different
views between cultures and within communities (for example
within Australia) about what is acceptable and what requires
That disagreement reflects differing expectations about
the nature of childhood, individual responsibility and
industrial discipline. Some observers for example comment
that fisticuffs and petty theft in the playground is simply
an unpleasant but inevitable fact of life, to be endured
rather than litigated. Other observers have associated
anti-bullying measures with jurisprudence regarding human
flourishing and anti-discrimination.
Disagreement also reflects differing perspectives on the
conceptualisation of injury and the role of the state
in addressing harm. Australia
and similar legal systems have traditionally valorised
property offences and physical injury, with law thus potentially
providing remedies where a child was hospitalised after
an altercation with a peer or an apprentice was killed
or maimed through a workplace initiation. Courts have
slowly come to recognise the significance of psychological
hurt for the target of bullying and more broadly for society
as a whole.
That recognition has occurred in tandem with the emergence
and elaboration of a coherent body of discrimination
law, which acknowledges and respects 'difference' and
which for example seeks to minimise racial, religious
and sexual vilification.
The following pages illustrate the contention that there
is no comprehensive statutory coverage of bullying in
Australia. The Australian legal framework does not derive
from a specific international agreement about bullying
(although action can be referenced to several global human
rights conventions). There is no over-arching statute
at the national or state/territory level and no specific
reference to bullying in the national Constitution (which
as discussed elsewhere
is very reticent in the identification of human rights).
Bullying instead is addressed through a mix
of statute and common law that encompasses injury (aka
tort), industrial relations and workplace safety, crimes
and discrimination statutes and case law. That law on
occasion provides sanctions directed at the perpetrators
of bullying (albeit with significant allowance for the
age of the bully). It also provides sanctions against
individuals and institutions who have failed to meet their
'duty of care', including employers, teachers and educational
institutions who were in a position to prevent bullying
but failed to do so. Action against those bystanders is
significant because they often have deeper pockets than
the perpetrators and because they are in a position to
influence community expectations through for example codes
of practice that cover all schools within a particular
In practice Australian law does not aspire to prevent
or penalise all nastiness - whether in the schoolyard,
on a child's mobile phone and personal computer, in a
factory or in the executive suite of a major corporation.
It - along with society - makes major allowances for what
happens in the Australian Defence Forces and in the course
of 'normal business practice'. Those allowances may of
course change, consistent with the way that social and
legal expectations about gendered and racial or religious
discrimination have changed over the past fifty years.
In practice many targets and their families find that
justice is expensive, both in terms of legal fees and
in the time or stress associated with litigation. There
have been a handful of substantial payments to compensate
targets who have suffered physical and/or psychological
injury. However, the costs of taking offenders to court
are often prohibitive, particularly when measured against
the paltry nature of some damages awards and the reluctance
of institutions to acknowledge guilt or remorse.
next page (institutions)