A guide on how not to manage bullying in your workplace

Bullying doesn’t stop on the playground. It can continue in many forms after entering the workforce. Employers owe a duty to their employees to take care for their safety. Accordingly, it is important for employers to ensure they have policies in place to manage instances of bullying in the workplace, more importantly, that those policies are actually adhered to.

The recent case of Keegan v Sussan Corporation (Aust) Pty Ltd [2014] QSC 64 provides a practical guide for employers on what not to do when an employee complains of a seemingly minor instance of bullying.

Fashion retailer Sussan was sued by a former assistant manager, Ms Keegan, claiming damages of $1.2 million as a result of a major psychiatric injury from bullying by her manager Ms Clarke.

Sussan’s Queensland Business Manager, Ms Makarein hired a new store manager, Ms Clarke, while Ms Keegan was on paternal leave. Ms Clarke was hired despite less than glowing references criticising her management and people skills and no experience in retail fashion.

On her return, Ms Keegan felt bullied by Ms Clarke. Ms Clarke’s conduct included speaking to Ms Keegan in an aggressive manner, leaving her out of business decisions and criticisms about various things, including poor handwriting and failing to mop the floors properly. On one occasion Ms Clarke held a mop up to Ms Keegan’s face claiming it was not peeling in response to Ms Keegan’s request for a new mop.

On the fourth day back at work, Ms Keegan contacted Ms Makarein in tears and advised her of the instances of bullying by Ms Clarke. Ms Makarein said she would speak to Ms Clarke and called her the next day. Ms Makarein told Ms Clarke about the allegations against her and told her to be ‘more mindful’ of how she spoke to Ms Keegan. In doing so, Ms Makarein failed to follow Sussan’s own policies on bullying, which required matters to be dealt with seriously and in confidence.

In response, Ms Clarke confronted Ms Keegan about the allegations and the bullying became worse. On reporting this to Ms Makarein, Ms Keegan was told to sort the problem out herself. Ms Keegan declined mentally to the point where she could no longer work or take care of her own child.

The Court found that Sussan breached its duty as an employer to Ms Keegan and was responsible for Ms Keegan’s psychiatric injury due to Ms Makarein’s failure to properly address the bullying and the unreasonable and excessive nature of the bullying. Sussan was ordered to pay damages to Ms Keegan of $237,770.00.

In relation to the actual acts of bullying, Judge Henry commented that:

“Considered in isolation, some of the earlier mentioned episodes may not seem significant. But, considered as a whole, Ms Clarke’s behaviour towards Ms Keegan since she had returned to work, culminating in the mop episode, involved a pattern of such unreasonable and excessive behaviour by a manager towards an employee as to signal a risk that it may cause serious emotional distress.”

Accordingly, this case serves as a warning to all employers to ensure that all reported instances of bullying, no matter how seemingly trivial, are appropriately addressed and workplace bullying policies are kept up to date and strictly adhered to.

If you are an employer needing advice in respect of managing workplace bullying, contact your Gold Coast lawyers McLaughlins.