10 year legal battle, 60,000 word judgment – how workplace conflict can get out of control
In organisations of more than one person, work is a team enterprise. The best team usually produces the best outcomes.
Even in the greatest teams, a level of workplace conflict is inevitable and sometimes even healthy. Creative tensions can produce even better outcomes.
However, sometimes these tensions boil over and get out of control, affecting team performance and even exposing organisations to legal risk. Most prominent are those cases we see in sport and politics – the tensions in the Indian cricket team dressing room this summer, the current Essendon AFL saga, including the departure of 2014 Coach Mark “Bomber” Thompson, or the tensions between the Prime Minister’s office and Government MPs, embodied in disputes over the role of the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.
These disputes can even afflict organisations supposedly working against destructive workplace conflict such as the Victorian WorkCover Authority, which has faced a spate of bullying claims, anti-depression campaigners Beyond Blue – whose ex-CEO accused the Chair of bullying her in a dispute over strategic direction - or trade unions that face internal divisive factional wars.
One workplace conflict case that was the “daddy of them all” ended after ten years with an adverse legal judgement against the complainant, an Adelaide receptionist, who then hinted she would appeal to the International Court of Justice.
It was a swirl of claim and counter-claim, characteristics familiar to the growing legion of psychologists, occupational health experts, lawyers, unionists, mediators and bureaucrats dealing with workplace conflict and alleged bullying.
Over seven years, the complainant made bullying and harassment claims against seven fellow public servants, complaining their behaviour had left her stressed, humiliated and depressed.
Her supervisors, in turn, labelled her argumentative, defiant and unhelpful. Angry meetings were held, investigators called in, emails exchanged, all to no avail. The office became so toxic that the complainant would spend hours at her desk scribbling detailed notes of her hostile encounters with co-workers.
A ringing telephone sparked the final confrontation. The complainant’s female manager demanded to know why she hadn't answered it, prompting the complainant to file an official hazard and injury report alleging that she felt intimidated and unsafe. The manager would later testify that the opposite was true: she and her co-workers were frightened to talk to her lest their conversation was "noted down in the exercise book she was constantly writing in" and used against them. Central to the complainant’s claim was a disability resulting from a childhood illness - instead of accommodating her needs, she said, her managers had singled her out by physically intimidating her and screaming orders "like a dog in an attacking manner".
The case ballooned into one of the lengthiest battles over workplace bullying allegations ever waged in Australia. Retrenched in 2008, the complainant sued the Commonwealth for discrimination in the Federal Magistrates Court, a case that turned into a three-year marathon.
It ended in a 60,000-word judgment handed down by a Federal magistrate in 2011, which not only did the judgment reject every one of the complainant's harassment and discrimination claims, it concluded that she "substantially created" the toxic atmosphere in her office. "In many ways [the complainant] is an admirable person," the magistrate said. But he concluded that she had made exaggerated or unfounded allegations against co-workers, deliberately escalated conflict at work and used the complaints system as "an instrument of intimidation". None of her colleagues had given evidence in support of her, the magistrate noted, and he agreed with the findings of an independent investigator who wrote that the complainant's behaviour had traumatised those who tried to manage her, and at times constituted bullying.
Following her court defeat, the complainant insisted she was the victim of managers who refused to promote her and ignored her requests for a chair and workstation suitable to her needs. Despite being unemployed and in debt after exhausting a $50,000 inheritance to pursue her case, she was convinced she will ultimately be vindicated. "I can see what is written in the decision," she says, "but I am looking at the positive side of it. It's an opportunity to appeal, rather than walk away."
Unable to find a lawyer to launch an appeal, she proposed a solution – she indicated that she was thinking of doing a law degree. "I'm prepared to go as far as the International Court of Justice if it's necessary, to get the right decision," she says. "I'm not going to let it go."
iHR believes it is advisable to deal with workplace conflict before it gets to this point. As such, iHR is conducting Workplace Mediation Skills training, where iHR’s facilitator and Senior Workplace Relations Advisor will guide participants through the key principles of effective workplace mediation, focussing on best practice process and the skills required of an effective mediator.