$2.25m reasons for treating bullying and harassment seriously!

01 July 2022

In Australia, an employer has been ordered to pay a manager more than $2.25 million in compensation, penalties and costs after its CEO effectively destroyed her life.

The Hawkesbury Race Club marketing manager, who had been with the organisation since 1991, claimed the employer took adverse action against her because she complained about the CEO's bullying and intimidating behaviour, and because she took sick leave. She also sought damages for a psychiatric injury.

The Federal Court heard that in July 2016, just months after the CEO had started in his role, the manager told him she felt like he didn't trust her to perform her duties and that she was losing sleep over it. He did nothing to address her concerns, however, and in a meeting a week later, he brought up his own issues and began micro-managing her.

In October, the manager again complained to the CEO about how his rude behaviour was affecting her, specifically stating she felt "down trodden, excluded and questioned unreasonably". She said she felt they were reaching an untenable situation and asked him to advise the board of these issues.  The CEO responded the following day, asking her to meet with him to discuss her work performance.

The manager was subsequently certified unfit for work due to "work stress", and the CEO forwarded her email to his father-in-law with the comment, "dropping like flies", and told a colleague the manager had "pulled the 'stress leave' certificate".

Following this, the CEO deliberately withheld the manager's commissions entitlements and informed staff and sponsors that she wouldn't be returning to her job.

In March 2017, the manager informed the employer that she considered the CEO's behaviour and actions were a repudiation of her contract, which she accepted.

The Federal Court upheld her claims. The judge said the CEO "intended to make [the manager] 'drop like flies'", and the performance meeting request "evinced that intention".

"A reasonable person would have understood that description of his conduct to suggest bullying: rudeness, harsh tones in speaking to her, failing to ask or wait for an explanation, past instances of her feeling 'downtrodden', excluded and excessively questioned in the context [of] the very senior role she had and had performed successfully for the Club for 25 years."

Further, the CEO used the manager's entitlements as "bargaining chips", and did so because she had exercised her right to take sick leave.

The employer claimed the manager gave no indication – such as crying – that would have indicated she was at risk of a psychiatric injury.  He said she also never formally complained to the board; rather, her interactions were more like a "conversational 'whinge'" and she was a "fairly forceful woman" who could stand up for herself, it said.

The judge found the CEO unreasonably micro-managed the manager, unjustifiably questioned her integrity, and made excessive demands of her. His response to her stress leave proved this behaviour was intentional; "that is, he intended to force her out of her position by making her job unbearable to her".

This behaviour, which the employer was aware of, "effectively destroyed [the manager's] life".

The manager was awarded $1,770,510 in compensation for her psychiatric injury, applying a $561,513 credit for weekly workers' comp payments already made, and $24,233 for breach of contract in failing to pay her commissions. The Court also ordered the employer to pay her penalties amounting to $160,650 for unlawful adverse action and failing to pay annual and long-service leave, as well as $300k in costs.

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