Can Performance Improvement Plans be bullying?


Employers or any level of management have the authority to take reasonable management action where an employee is not performing to their expected standard of performance. Despite this, the Fair Work Commission has considered whether performance improvement plans (PIPs), or the repeated application of them, could constitute workplace bullying.


Section 789FD of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (the Act) defines workplace bullying as where a person or group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards another worker or group of workers, and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Reasonable management action 

The Act also provides that reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner is not workplace bullying. In practice, reasonable managementaction assists employees in improving their work, and addresses poor performance or conduct. In particular, applying a PIP is included as an example of reasonable management action on the Fair Work Commission’s website

But there is question as to what ‘reasonable’ means, including in the specific context where an employee is subject to more than one PIP.

The test for reasonable management action is stated by Commissioner Hunt in the case of Scott v Vita People Pty Ltd, Josie Williams [2022] FWC 24 (Scott v Vita) to whether the management action was reasonable, not whether it could have been undertaken in a manner that was ‘more reasonable’ or ‘more acceptable’.

In Scott v Vita, an employee filed a stop bullying order against his managers, claiming the application of a PIP was based on fabricated and untrue facts about his work performance and was a form of micromanagement. The employee had been managed under two previous PIPs that concluded without disciplinary action.

The Commissioner did not agree with these assertions and decided the targets in the latest PIP were reasonable, given the employee was reluctant to complete certain tasks, the non-execution of which would amount to failing to fulfil requirements of his role.

Even though the employee had been subject to multiple PIPs, the Commission found on the facts that management had taken reasonable management action in a reasonable manner, and dismissed the application.

In more general terms, the Commissioner clarified the following regarding reasonable management action: 

  • management actions do not need to be perfect or ideal to be considered reasonable;
  • a course of action may still be ‘reasonable action,’ even where particular steps are not;
  • the action must be lawful and not ‘irrational, absurd, or ridiculous;’ and
  • any ‘unreasonableness’ must arise from the actual management action in question, rather than the applicant’s perception of it.

For advice on how these issues are relevant to your organisation, please contact us at

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