A new mum who was severely bullied on her return to work has won a substantial payout after her employer failed to deal properly with her initial complaints.
The Supreme Court of Queensland said her employer had been negligent and should have recognised the extent and severity of the bullying could have led to a psychological injury.
The court heard that she was the “most loyal, dedicated, enthusiastic” member of staff before the bullying. She had sought more than $1 million in damages, with the commission opting for a near $250,000 payout.
Bullying is repeated, unreasonable and unwanted behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety.
If you fail to take reasonable care for the safety of an employee, you may be liable for negligence under common law.
In a recent case before the court, it was found that the employer, A Queensland retail store, failed to take reasonable precautions to avoid causing injury to an employee after she returned from parental leave.
While the employee was on parental leave a new store manager was hired. Issues were raised throughout her reference checks, criticising her inability to interact with people and the fact she had no experience within the retail fashion industry, however she was still appointed in the position.
Within four days of returning from parental leave, the new mum made a bullying complaint to her State business manager with concerns about how the store manager was speaking to her in nasty tones, leaving her out of business decisions and criticising her work, including failing to mop the floors correctly and poor handwriting.
Upon receiving this complaint, the state business manager failed to follow the company’s bullying and harassment policy and instead responded by calling the alleged offender to inform her of the bullying complaint made against her.
The commission noted that notifying her of the allegations made against her did not remedy the matter, in fact, the bullying continued for a further seven days.
The employee made an additional bullying complaint as a result of the continuing conduct and raised concerns about working in an isolated atmosphere where the store manager was commonly friendlier to other staff; being ignored when offering assistance; being excluded from business discussions and receiving “unwarranted criticism” about failing to sign “customers to the store’s VIP discount program” and not removing security tags from clothing.
The victim was surprisingly told to “work it out herself” when she made the second complaint.
As a result of her conditions at work, the new mum was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder after deteriorating to the point where she could no longer take care of her own child, let alone attend work. As a result, she was awarded over $235,000 in damages after being bullied for 11 days.
The court ruled that a reasonable person in the employer’s position should have recognised that failure to act responsibly after the initial complaint ‘considerably heightened’ Ms Keegan’s emotional distress and caused the injury to worsen after continued bullying. Consequently, it was found that the employer should have reasonably foreseen the psychiatric injury at risk.
It was concluded the company was negligent as the store manager and the state business manager did not follow the businesses bullying and harassment policy, and in fact, permitted her to bully the employee.
As seen in this case, when complaints of bullying are made, the correct processes need to be followed, and failing to do so will expose you to damages for negligence. If this does arise within your business, factors that are likely to be examined include:
- If the psychological injury is recognisable, and not fanciful or implausible;
- If a reasonable person could foresee the risk of stress causing psychological injury to the employee; and
- Despite the abovementioned requirements being met, failure to take reasonable action to reduce or eliminate the risk at hand.
This case is just one example that demonstrates how important it is for businesses to regularly train their staff in relation to these workplace matters, and to demonstrate an accurate record of that training.
This will ensure, if and when a workplace matter such as the one mentioned here does arise, you will have confidence that the matter will be dealt with in a fair, transparent and compliant manner.
Additionally, those in management or leadership positions especially need to comply with all workplace policies to assist you to create a safe work environment for your employees.
If your business doesn’t have a workplace bullying and harassment policy or you think it may be out of date and in need of review, there are templates available for purchase from the CCIQ Bookstore.
Contact CCIQ's Employer Assistance Team on 1300 731 988 or firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how you can minimise the risk to your business and avoid potential hefty penalties.
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