Bizarre “bullying” case demonstrates need for better understanding of policies and performance management
Allegations of bullying can have major consequences for both employers and employees in terms of time, cost and impacts on workplace culture.
In an unusual case, a clerical support officer for the Tasmanian police department claimed that her pre-existing genital pain was aggravated by “aggressive and bullying behaviour from another worker”.
There are differing versions of the events that led to the employee’s claim last September.
In an August 2014 meeting, a middle-ranking professional staffer was instructed to direct her administrative tasks to the clerical support officer (or another specified worker), provided the staffer check with their supervisors beforehand to confirm their capacity to complete the work. The employee in question reported to one of the department’s police inspectors.
At approximately 1.00pm on the day in question, the clerical officer received an email from the staffer requesting that she carry out a task. The employee considered the request unreasonable and emailed the inspector to express her concerns. She stated that at about 3.15pm, the colleague visited her office to discuss the request.
Despite being informed that her supervisor had approved the work request, the clerical officer insisted that she still needed to speak to the inspector. During this exchange, the employee said that the staffer was incensed, becoming belligerent, aggressive and intimidating. It was shortly after this event that the employee claimed to have a recurrence of her genital pain.
The clerical officer’s gynaecologist provided her with a worker’s compensation certificate, which stated that while the employee had made a slow, yet steady, recovery from a previous surgery, the sudden increase in pain occurred when “she was being bullied by a work colleague ... I have no doubt that the recurrence of her pain is related to the stressful event that occurred in the workplace”.
Contrary to this, the staffer maintained that the conversations with the clerical officer were brief and inoffensive. The colleague stated that considering that the requested task was trivial in nature, she was surprised by the employee’s response.
The department denied liability, arguing the clerical officer's employment wasn't the most significant contributing factor to her injury; the conversation between the employee and staffer was civil; and the staffer, whom the employee had described as “red-faced” with anger, claimed her facial colouring was the result of a medical condition.
The clerical officer eventually lost her claim for worker’s compensation in the Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Tribunal of Tasmania. The Commissioner exhibited partiality towards the evidence given by the staffer, throwing out the claim and citing that it the staffer’s actions would likely be considered reasonable, if the case were to proceed to a contested hearing.
This case is a reminder of the role that employers have in clearly conveying what constitutes bullying and harassment and how to handle complaints correctly. Furthermore, processes and procedures around people management and workflows have to be clearly understood by all employees.
iHR believes that the case underlines managers’ and team leaders' responsibility as the custodians of an organisation's workplace culture. iHR offers Anti Discrimination and Bullying Training for Managers that covers the key elements of the manager's role in preventing and effectively managing bullying, harassment and discrimination issues in the workplace and also provides participants with an understanding of how to approach and conduct conversations to address inappropriate workplace behaviour.