“Treated like a slave” – is it bullying or managing?
A senior public servant who alleged his manager treated him like a “slave” has failed to win anti-bullying orders, with the Fair Work Commission finding the management of his performance was reasonable. The employee, who had made but then withdrawn bullying allegations against his previous supervisor, sought orders to “stop this bullying”; end his dealings with his manager; and initiate an inquiry into why his employer didn’t have a “credible and transparent system” of investigating bullying.
His allegations against his senior manager included that he:
• “Tells me to go back where I came from”;
• Constantly “intimidates me to terminate my employment”;
• “Makes hurtful remarks and makes me feel less important and undervalued”;
• “Puts me down and criticises my every move”;
• “Distorts facts and fabricates information about me”;
• “Treats me like a slave — he expects me to jump every time he asks me to do a task for him”;
• Fabricates non-existing performance issues;
• Checks on what time he arrives and leaves the office;
• “He speaks with me in a condescending manner which has been humiliating; and
• “All his actions demonstrate that he is trying to get me into trouble. He is making my life miserable which has affected my health adversely, and impacted on every aspect of my life.”
The employee said he was a single parent and the “harassment and bullying” had given him “extreme high blood pressure, anxiety and insomnia. I am concerned if something happens to me, who will look after my kids?”
The FWC heard the department conducted internal investigations into two separate complaints by the employee against the senior manager, but determined no evidence of bullying. It instituted a performance improvement plan for him, but said he only partially satisfied one of the five criteria.
Among the senior manager’s concerns with the employee were his inability to adequately use the Notes system for communication and knowledge management; follow through on instructions and guidance; communicate appropriately on projects or tasks; and take responsibility for managing work projects to achieve results.
The Commissioner said she was satisfied that neither the employee’s managers nor his colleagues bullied him, and that the department demonstrated an “ordinary exercise of management prerogative”. However, she accepted it was the employee’s “honestly held belief” that his manager’s performance management initiatives were aimed at establishing a reason to sack him.
“That perception of a malevolent motivation, and an apprehension of termination of employment as an outcome of that conduct, has given rise to significant health issues for the [employee]. The [employee] is concerned about his continued employment and the financial stability of his family,” she said. However, she was not persuaded his belief was justified. “I am satisfied that the [employee’s] managers are managing the [employee’s] performance in an ordinary fashion. I am not equally satisfied that the [employee] is engaging in that review in a co-operative fashion.”
This case shows that expensive and time consuming bullying cases can be negated or even avoided if procedural fairness is demonstrated and management actions are “reasonable”. Our Equal Employment Opportunity, anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination training for managers and team leaders focuses on the responsibility as the custodians of your organisation’s workplace culture, and the key elements of the manager’s role in preventing and effectively managing bullying, harassment and discrimination issues in the workplace.