An application for an order to stop bullying was considered in a decision by Commissioner Roe in Melbourne, 17 June 2014 in The Fair Work Commission.
The applicant was self-represented against her employer, a major national company, and its General Manager (whose identities the Commission suppressed and who were allowed legal representation, in the interests the applicant of having the matter promptly dealt with given the stresses she was under.)
The applicant was a state training manager heading a team of eight in Melbourne, reporting to the GM in Queensland. There were issues about the financial performance of the Melbourne team that led to a change in to whom, and how the applicant reported.
When the applicant was on annual leave, the General Manager met with her team. That led to some of them anticipating job losses, a concern expressed to the applicant on her return, but not passed on by her to the General Manager until sometime later. The relationship between the two began to suffer, with allegations of poor communication and missed or non-attended meetings. The applicant was concerned about direct communication with her team undermining her, and being micromanaged.
On 30 October 2013 the General Manager called the applicant to his office and told her that her behaviour was unacceptable. The applicant alleged she had been bullied, as he had:
- been aggressive to her at the meeting;
- questioned her over her decisions and hounded about information being provided;
- undermined her by the direct contact with her team;
- shown inconsistent behaviour by telling those staff they did not have to attend internal training, then telling them they had to;
- intervened directly between team members in a dispute between them, and not telling her;
- yelled at her about not meeting budget;
- checked on her team’s attendance at work without telling her;
- queried her medical clearances or return to work;
- denied her the attendance of a support person at meetings after she had gone on sick leave;
- been overbearing;
- told her she should “worry about” her private, online profiling business which she had only verbally advised her immediate superior of when appointed to her position, but had not otherwise disclosed.
The applicant did not return to work from late November, 2013.
The Commission was satisfied that:
- the applicant was not at work because of stress;
- she reasonably believed she was being bullied at work; and
- her health and safety was being negatively impacted at work.
The question was whether or not the alleged incidents constituted unreasonable behaviour by the General Manager and whether his actions were reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner. Given the company called ten witnesses to support its case, the Commission thought there may be an impact on the applicant’s successful return to work. Those witnesses referred to the Applicant as resisting the changed reporting, and engaging in a campaign against the General Manager involving reluctant cooperation and open hostility.
After a detailed consideration of the evidence, the Commission found:
- rather than take the initiative and ask about whether or not she should attend meetings or provide information, the applicant waited for direct instructions or invitations, largely explained by her insecurity about the changed arrangements;
- the applicant felt her work and her authority were threatened by the General Manager and she was unsure what the consequences of greater openness and engagement would be;
- that she had considerable difficulty accommodating the changes;
- that the General Manager and the other state level managers were all male and got on well, and that a female manager would be somewhat of an outsider when coming into this all male group for the first time;
- that both the applicant and the General Manager anticipated that the 30 October meeting might be difficult, and that both would tend to see the behaviour of the other critically and exaggerate elements of it;
- that to conduct the meeting behind closed doors was reasonable management action as it was for the General Manager to itemise the matters about which he felt the applicant should have kept him informed, and that this aspect of the meeting did not amount to hounding or harassment;
- however, having observed the General Manager in the witness box, he had been angry and had spoken in an aggressive tone at the meeting and the applicant was shocked and upset;
that by 30 October the General Manager and the other managers had developed a joint view of the applicant as a problem, and that this amplified the General Manager’s feeling of agitation about the applicant’s behaviour;
- that it is to be expected that people, including managers, will from time to time get upset and angry and will express that upset and anger;
- it was reasonable management action for the General Manager:
- to have forcefully communicated in both words and body language that the way in which the applicant was interacting with him was unacceptable and could not continue; and
- to have declined the request for a support person to attend every meeting he had with the applicant.
In summary, the Commission has indicated that what might in isolation be viewed as aggressive behaviour can clearly fall within reasonable management action – as long as it not repeated, and where there is a culmination of events that requires a meeting that has to bring matters to a head.