Several of our members can attest to the fact that bullying and harassment claims are on the increase. Whilst there is no doubt that there are significant claims regarding these matters which are genuine and reflect the worst practices with regard to some employers and managers it is also the reverse case that a claim of bullying and harassment is a ‘soft’ path for many disgruntled employees to cause as much distress as possible to their employer by lodging a vexatious claim.
Issues to do with these matters are currently very topical, based partly on a perception that we are only seeing the thin end of the wedge with entrenched and toxic cultures in a number of significantly high profile Government Departments as well as a barrage of reports relating to the workplace on matters of sexual discrimination from a number of sources including ‘transgender’ individuals.
Ultimately this means that modern workplaces – regardless of size – need to take an educated and flexible approach to managing risk exposure in these areas.
Since the Fair Work Commission introduced the new anti bullying regime in 2014 we are starting to see increasingly significant orders for damages from common law negligence claims by employees coupled with an increasing number of successful prosecutions for failure to meet employer obligations. These matters impact into the jurisdiction of Occupational Safety and Health requirements for employers and are leading to significant fines and costs orders.
In a recent case of Mathews VS Winslow Constructors (Vic) Pty Ltd a former employee was awarded damages in excess of 1.3 million dollars following a finding that she was subjected to abuse, bullying and sexual harassment from colleagues and sub contractors of the business.
As a result of repeated exposure, over which the employer took little if any action, she was diagnosed with anxiety, stress and depression and had not worked since the final incident in July 2010.
The employer accepted that is was vicariously liable for the actions of its employees and sub contractors and that it was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment for the employee.
A similar Queensland case Eaton VS TriCare (Country) Pty Ltd the Court of Appeal accepted that an employee had developed depression and anxiety as a result of her consistently excessive workplace and the bullying conduct of her manager. She was awarded $435,583.95 in damages.
In reading this, if you think you are invulnerable to these sorts of actions then please think again. Small to medium employers are particularly vulnerable due in many cases to a significant lack of expertise in HR and IR management, or the knowledge, skills and techniques to both reduce risk exposure and manage such matters effectively. Unless you have the misfortune to be drawn into one of these matters it is impossible to emphasise the potentially significant cost in emotions distress, time and worry that such matters can cause for an employer.
If you are not sure of how to go about safeguarding your workplace then please call us to discuss.