Former Mediator &
Business Adviser

How to respond to a workplace bullying complaint in 20 questions

by Paul Gerrard

If it were your job to deal with a workplace bullying complaint what would you do?

  • This article suggests how you could respond and 20 questions you might consider.
  • You may need to adapt these suggestions to the relevant laws, the policies and procedures of your organization and the factors associated with the complaint. This was written from an Australian perspective where the laws, as of 2014, include a broad definition of bullying and the employer obligation to provide a safe workplace.

Firstly, it is not your role to take sides and your organization does not have legal authority to punish; rather the organization has a legal obligation to safeguard. The immediate task is to gather information that will provide the basis for determining what action(s), if any, need to be taken to provide a safe workplace.

Secondly, no two situations are identical and nothing can be taken for granted. In particular, the mental state of the victim and the volatility of the situation are unknown. Therefore, be cautious. Communicate with the victim sooner rather than later. Show respect, sensitivity and diplomacy. Listen attentively with an open mind. Reserve making decisions until you have heard what the victim has to say. And even after you have heard the victim's story you have only heard half the story.

One approach would be to use a questionnaire that asks questions such as the following.

  1. When did the event that led to the complaint occur?
  2. Where did it occur?
  3. Who was involved?
  4. What actually happened?
  5. Have there been similar events, and if so: When? Where? Who? What?
  6. Is there reason to believe similar events may occur in the future?
  7. What impact did the event(s) have on the victim?
  8. Has the victim sought advice (e.g. doctor, counsellor), and if so, what action, if any, has been taken?
  9. What does the victim want to happen next?
  10. Does the victim consent to the complaint being made known to the alleged perpetrator?
  11. How would the victim feel about discussing the issues with the alleged perpetrator either privately, in mediation, or some other setting?

Another approach would be to invite victims to say what led them to make the make the complaint and prompt them as necessary to fill in the gaps. Neither approach is better in all circumstances.

  • Some victims may be reluctant to speak, but may respond well if you structure the conversation much like a questionnaire.
  • Others victims may welcome the opportunity to speak freely.

Perhaps the best approach is to have a clear understanding of what you want to learn from the victim and what you want to convey to the victim while being flexible in how you communicate. That is, focus on the content and adapt the approach to whatever seems to work best at the time. Irrespective of the approach, avoid asking such questions as:

  1. How did the behaviour make the victim feel?
  2. Why did the perpetrator behave that way?
  3. Were there any witnesses?

Such questions risk being counter-productive and the answers are likely to provide no benefit. The first could lead to an emotional scene and reinforce negative emotions if not handled well. The second calls for speculation. The third is premature.

Also, irrespective of the approach, some victims may vent their emotions. This may help defuse an explosive situation and may provide information you had not expected, but if the victim says the same thing over and over it may be best to redirect the flow by saying, "Yes, I hear what you say about ... can you tell me more about ... ?"

While listening to the victim you should consider the following questions.

  1. Is the victim likely to proceed with any claim for compensation?
  2. Did the behaviour described by the victim fit within the definition of bullying? (That is, repeated unreasonable behaviour leading to risk of health or safety.)
  3. Does the workplace currently present a risk to the victim, and if so what needs to happen immediately?
  4. Would returning to normal duties expose the victim to risk, and if so what would need to occur prior to returning to normal duties to ensure a safe workplace?
  5. What action(s), if any, may be appropriate?

You can then explain what you intend to do and ask the final question(s).

  1. Is the victim satisfied that the proposed action? If not, why not? Has the victim provided additional information warrants changing your mind?

Ideally, what you intend to do will be consistent with what the victim would like to happen next, but this will not always be the case. Your view must be driven by legal obligations and organizational policies whereas what victims want is based on their individual perspectives and objectives. Consequently, there may need to be some discussion about what can be done and what cannot be done.

Whatever you decide should be made known to the victim.

You must also remember that the victim may not be the only person who is at risk. Some action may be necessary to protect others. It is even possible that the victim may pose risks to the organization and to other staff.

Finally, don't plan too far ahead. The reality is that, you can never be sure how either the bully or the victim will respond. You should therefore take one step at a time, observe the outcome, seek feedback and update the plan as appropriate.