Beyond Words: Unveiling the dangers of Weaponised Workplace Bullying

Unlocking the Hidden Dangers of Workplace Bullying: The Dark Side Beyond Words!

In the seemingly serene corridors of our modern workplaces, a sinister force lurks beneath the surface. It’s not just about snide remarks or hurtful gossip; it goes far beyond mere words. Welcome to the world of weaponised workplace bullying, where psychological safety is shattered and lives are forever altered.

Workplace bullying has become an all too familiar reality for many employees across various industries. But what about a lesser-known form called upward bullying? In this article, we will delve into the depths of this insidious phenomenon, explore cases that should send warning signs for management teams, shed light on what can qualify as reasonable management action in such situations and a way forward for Employers.

What is Upward Bullying

Picture this: the traditional workplace hierarchy turned on its head. Upward bullying, a lesser-known form of workplace harassment, flips the power dynamics and sees employees targeting their superiors or managers. It challenges our preconceived notions about who can be a bully and who can be a victim.

In such instances, subordinates find ways to assert control over their higher-ranking colleagues through manipulation, intimidation, or sabotage. This could involve:

  • spreading false rumours to tarnish reputations,
  • withholding crucial information needed for decision-making processes, or
  • even publicly undermining authority in front of other team members.

The effects of upward bullying are far-reaching and devastating. Victims often suffer from decreased job satisfaction, increased stress levels leading to burnout, and diminished productivity due to constant fear and emotional distress, ultimately it may lead to resignation or a litigious claim (or both). The toxic environment created by upward bullies, who weaponise workplace bullying claims not only affects individuals but also has broader implications for overall organisational culture.

Weaponised Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is already a distressing issue that affects many employees across different industries. However, the concept of weaponised workplace bullying takes it to an even more sinister level. This form of bullying involves individuals or groups intentionally harming others within the work environment to distract from:

  • their own conduct (or misconduct),
  • performance or
  • even legitimate reasonable management action. 

Weaponised workplace bullying can manifest in various ways, including verbal abuse, intimidation tactics, and malicious manipulation. 

One example of weaponised workplace bullying is when an employee deliberately withholds important information from a manager, sabotaging their ability to manage tasks or projects.

Another example could be when an employee spreads false rumours about a co-worker’s competence to undermine their credibility and chances for promotion.

Such examples, then could lead to intense workplace investigations which can derail a manager’s progression and promotion opportunities and even financial incentives. 

It’s crucial to recognise the signs of weaponised workplace bullying early on so that appropriate action can be taken. These signs may include increased tension among staff members, decreased productivity due to fear or stress, and higher rates of absenteeism and turnover.

To combat this issue effectively,

  • Employers must prioritise creating a culture of psychological safety where employees feel empowered to speak up against any form of harassment or mistreatment.
  • Additionally, implementing policies that explicitly prohibit weaponised workplace bullying is essential.
  • Provide adequate training to Managers to deal with weaponised and upward bullying
  • Take care with workplace investigations – especially escalation points

Examples of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can take many forms, and it is important to recognise the different ways it can manifest. Here are some examples that highlight the various tactics used by workplace bullies:

1. Verbal Abuse: This involves using derogatory language, insults, or offensive comments towards a colleague. It may be done in public or behind closed doors.

2. Exclusion: A bully may intentionally exclude someone from team activities, meetings, or social gatherings as a way to isolate and undermine them.

3. Intimidation: This includes aggressive behaviour such as yelling, shouting, or making threats to instil fear in their target.

4. Undermining Work: Bullies often sabotage their victim’s work by withholding information, spreading rumors about their competence, or taking credit for their achievements.

5. Cyberbullying: With the rise of technology and social media platforms, bullies now have new avenues to harass others online through emails, messages, or posting negative comments on professional networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

6. Micromanagement: Some bullies exert control over their targets by excessively monitoring and criticising every aspect of their work performance.

7. Unfair Treatment: Discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality, or other protected characteristics can also be considered workplace bullying.

8. Unreasonable demands : Bullies may constantly assign excessive workloads or unrealistic deadlines with the intention to overwhelm and stress out their victims.

A good case law example was the case of Cummings v State of Queensland (Queensland Health) [2022] QIRC 72

  • Over the course of a prolonged period, the employee engaged in intimidatory behaviour towards the manager, making disparaging remarks about her and carrying out actions that had a detrimental effect on her emotional and psychological well-being.
  • At a team facilitation day focused on the Department’s culture, the employee displayed blatant disrespect, aggression and offensiveness toward the manager with numerous onlookers present.
  • The employee proposed that her abruptness could have been caused by the manager’s inadequate supervision, resulting in a toxic work atmosphere.

In relation to the employee’s claim that the Employer could have managed her conduct sooner, the QIRC acknowledged that:

“It is incumbent on employers to manager their employees and address grievances, or poor workplace culture, in a timely manner. A failure to do so can result in significant challenges for those departments, agencies and employees involved.”

Given the evidence, the QIRC concluded that the Employer’s decision to take disciplinary action was a prudent one, likely to deter similar behaviour from the employee in the future.  That is, the upward bullying behaviour was unacceptable and the disciplinary action of a performance improvement plan and requirements to attend meetings and trainings regarding the code of conduct was satisfactory.

In the case of

Application by Gore [2016] FWC 2559 (24 May 2016)

Ms Gore had previously made an application for an order to halt the bullying she was receiving from three of her colleagues, which included the manager, at Yura Yungi Aboriginal Medical Service located in Halls Creek.

The conduct complained of included:

  • A “suspicious stare”;
  • One employee “checking up on her”;
  • One employee complimenting another work colleague, but not complimenting Ms Gore;
  • The manager:
    • not dealing with a problem when Ms Gore raised it with him because he was pre-occupied with other tasks;
    • not taking up her suggestion for improvement;
    • telling her to return to work because reception was left unstaffed;
    • asking her if she had read a workplace policy and was aware of the usual procedure after she had not followed it.

Ms Gore was employed by the Yura Yungi Aboriginal Medical Service in Halls Creek and had lodged an application for an order for three of her work colleagues (one of whom was the practice manager) to stop bullying her.

The conduct complained of included:

  • A “suspicious stare”;
  • One employee “checking up on her”;
  • One employee complimenting another work colleague, but not complimenting Ms Gore;
  • Ms Gore’s manager:
    • not dealing with a problem when Ms Gore raised it with him because he was pre-occupied with other tasks;
    • not taking up her suggestion for improvement;
    • telling her to return to work because reception was left unstaffed;
    • asking her if she had read a workplace policy and was aware of the usual procedure after she had not followed it.

Commissioner Cloghan refused to grant the orders requested, concluding that the behavior in question was not considered bullying, and describing one incident as inconsequential and not meeting the definition of being bullied at work.

Commissioner Cloghan determined that the clinic manager should have the autonomy to instruct staff on how to carry out their tasks when necessary; accept or reject feedback from employees; and, as Clinic Coordinator, be in the optimal position to advise a staff member on ways of avoiding high patient demand.

The Commissioner commented on the manager’s refusal to deal with an issue raised by Ms Gore, acknowledging that managing superiors is a regular part of being in the workplace. However, he did make it clear that employees should not view rejection from their supervisor as ‘disrespectful’; as this would be an inversion of the organisation’s chain of command.

The Commissioner asserted that sometimes, employees can be too quick to notice a pattern and that the FW Act’s anti-bullying provisions are designed to curb bullying rather than to protect from hurt feelings.

Reasonable Management Action

In the face of weaponised workplace bullying, it is crucial for organisations to take action and prioritise the well-being of their employees.

One way to address this issue is through implementing Reasonable Management Action which refers to actions taken by employers or managers that are considered reasonable and necessary for effective management.

Reasonable Management Action involves setting clear expectations, providing ongoing feedback and support, offering training and development opportunities, and addressing performance issues in a fair manner.

By promoting psychological safety and proactively managing psychosocial risks within the workplace, organisations can combat upward bullying effectively. This includes fostering open communication channels between employees at all levels, encouraging reporting mechanisms for incidents of workplace bullying or harassment, conducting regular risk assessments, and implementing appropriate policies and procedures.

 Examples of reasonable management include:

  • Providing constructive feedback on performance
  • Providing a reasonable and lawful direction
  • Informing a worker about work that is unsatisfactory
  • Letting an employee know about behaviour that is inappropriate workplace behaviour
  • Allocating work to an employee and controlling and directing how it needs to be carried out
  • Placing an employee on a performance improvement plan
  • Modifying an employee’s duties
  • Redeploying an employee
  • Expecting employees to obtain workplace goals and maintain workplace standards
  • Requesting an independent medical examination for an employee to assess whether they’re physically fit to fulfil the requirements of the role

A Way Forward

Weaponised workplace bullying poses significant dangers not only to individuals but also to organisational success. Recognizing the signs of workplace bullying is crucial to address this issue effectively.

By taking proactive measures around Reasonable Management Action strategies, organisations can foster an environment where respect prevails over fear. 

Ways to do this include giving management teams and supervisors a clear understanding of:

  • What is workplace bullying
  • The policies and processes for the employer regarding workplace bullying
  • What steps can be taken including who to talk to when upward bullying occurs (and weaponised workplace bullying)
  • The ability to undertake reasonable management action (and the support thereof)

A good way to undertake this is through People Management Training. 

Give NB Employment Law a call we offer an obligation-free consultation and are happy to help.  Reach out via [email protected] or +61 (07) 3876 5111 to book an appointment.

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Written By

Jonathan Mamaril


NB Employment Law 

[email protected]

+61 (07) 3876 5111

About the Author

Jonathan Mamaril leads a team of handpicked experts in the area of employment law who focus on educating clients to avoid headaches, provide advice on issues before they fester and when action needs to be taken and there is a problem mitigate risk and liability. With a core value of helping first and providing practical advice, Jonathan is a sought after advisor to a number of Employers and as a speaker for forums and seminars where his expertise is invaluable as a leader in this area as a lawyer for employers.

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+61 (07) 3876 5111