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Threatening and intimidating behaviour – Grounds for dismissal?

There are a number of obligations on employers to provide a safe workplace free from behaviour that is classified as violent, threatening or intimidating. While violence is easy to identify and should result in immediate termination, intimidating or threatening conduct is often less clear, poorly handled, and goes unreported due to fears of worsening the situation or because of an established workplace hierarchy.

It is important employers are aware repeated intimidating and threatening behaviour can constitute workplace bullying and harassment. While this behaviour is not always as overt as some of the signs of classic workplace bullying or harassment, it is important for employers to recognise and record instances of threatening or intimidating behaviour, taking appropriate measures to address the behaviour. The measures exercised will depend on the outcome of a workplace investigation and the severity of the conduct.

What constitutes threatening or intimidating behaviour?

Some examples of threatening or intimidating behaviour include:

  • Threats of dismissal, demotion, or other actions or consequences designed to intimidate.

  • Teasing and deliberating alienating, excluding or setting someone up to fail.

  • Invasion of personal space including waving finger in face, staring aggressively and attempting to assert physical dominance or making threats of violence.

  • Unreasonable constant criticism designed to humiliate.

  • Repeated angry or aggressive communications.

Note this is not an exhaustive list. Usually for a case to be substantiated there needs to be repeated incidents of one or more of the above behaviours.

What it does not include:

  • Reasonable directions from management, disciplinary actions, and feedback on performance

  • Behaviour that does not pose a threat to workplace health and safety. Workplace health and safety includes psychological and emotional wellbeing of employees.

  • Conflicts based on differences of opinion, approaches that should be taken, and disagreements or personality clashes.

Can I dismiss a workplace bully?

Depending on the seriousness of the threatening, intimidating or aggressive conduct, as well as the surrounding circumstances, some instances of workplace bullying may be best dealt with by dismissal of the problem employee.

However, all employers should be cautious in approaching termination for workplace bullying, ensuring allegations against the staff member are legitimate, all conduct is investigated impartially and fairly, and responded to quickly.

It is recommended employers have an anti-bullying policy in place, addressing the consequences of employees engaging in threatening and intimidating behaviour. Furthermore, it is important for employers to have plans in place to identify and respond to cases of alleged bullying. The longer the conduct continues, the more damaging it can be for the entire workplace and the more difficult it can be to address in the future.

Dismissal of an employee should only occur after a fair and extensive investigation proves the conduct was serious enough to warrant the action taken. Furthermore, employers should ensure any dismissal action is undertaken in a procedurally fair manner.

It’s important for employers to consult with workers and supervisors periodically to seek feedback and monitor incident reports, observe workplace relationships and record their observations to manage the risk of workplace bullying, which is both destructive and potentially costly to a business.

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