16 June 2020
WorkCover has taken the unusual step of suing the Australian Federal Police (AFP) concerning alledged bullying of a staff member over many years by senior manager Julie Drummond.
The litigation in the Victorian Supreme Court concerns the notoriously difficult problem for employers to prove allegations against workplace bullies to a standard that allows them to take disciplinary action against them.
If successful, the suit could mean employers may face increased liability for injuries caused by workplace bullies if they fail to act on complaints of bullying.
In the past few years, the AFP has drawn national media attention relating to misconduct scandals and alledgedly systemic issues of sexual harassment, sexism and bullying.
Since 2017, a number of members of staff have suicided, allegedly related to the lack of care provided for those with psychological or psychiatric injuries arising from bullying, harassment or from their duties. However, there is no suggestion that Ms Drummond’s actions resulted in the suicide of these staff members.
WorkCover claims the AFP failed to appropriately deal with Ms Drummond, against whom bullying complaints were made dating back to at least 2004 by various complainants.
The case involved former contractor Adrian East who was a facility manager at the AFP’s Melbourne headquarters for five years. During this time, he alleges that he experienced bullying by Ms Drummond that aggravated his cardiac condition and led to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a result, WorkCover now seeks to recover more than $303,000 in compensation and to obtain an indemnity against future payments to Mr East.
The bullying conduct
The AFP is accused of failing to act in response to complaints Mr East raised during his five years working with the AFP.
These accusations include that Ms Drummond interfered with his ability to do his job, requested he complete menial tasks not included in his job description, verbally abused him in view of other staff, and was aggressive and hostile to him in manner. She also unreasonably excluded him from meetings relating to his duties and repeatedly cancelled or rescheduled meetings at late notice. Ms Drummond also provided Mr East with a “zero out of 10” performance review rating.
WorkCover had found Mr East was subjected to repeated “demeaning and humiliating treatment”.
As much of this conduct occurred in an open plan office, Mr East faced the additional humiliation of knowing other staff overheard and witnessed many of these events.
The WorkCover regulator alleges that by generally failing to act following a decade of bullying allegations against Ms Drummond by other employees, the AFP has created a workplace culture that tolerates bullying and harassment.
Lessons for employers
It could be significant that WorkCover has taken the usual step of bringing an action against this employer for failing to prevent injuries caused by bullying in the workplace.
When this matter is decided, it will shed light on whether further liability will be borne by employers who fail to act to protect their employees and could have far-reaching consequences for permitting toxic workplace cultures to thrive.
Where complaints of bullying exist against staff, employers must be careful to document complaints, document action taken in response, and to be careful to ensure that reasonable decisions are made. Where endemic problems persist, WorkCover may obligate employers to bear the costs of injuries that arise.
Employers may need to balance the need to protect their workers from bullying behaviour and the need to prove allegations to a sufficient standard to take disciplinary action against bullies.
Author: Kathryn Cramp
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