When a long term, successful, employee returns from months of maternity leave, the last thing an employer expects is their resignation after only 11 days back on the job.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what transpired when this employee returned to work in September 2010.
In some cases the effects of workplace bullying can be slow-burning and take months or years to come to the surface.
In this case, only 11 days of intimidating and demeaning behaviour by a supervisor was sufficient for the employee to break down and be left with a serious psychological injury.
Returning from maternity leave to her previous position as assistant store manager, Ms Keegan was looking forward to being back at a job she loved.
What she didn’t expect was more than a weeks’ worth of unreasonable and excessive behaviour from the newly appointed store manager.
Over the first 11 days of returning to work the employee received unwarranted criticism for:
- The state of the store before going on leave
- Failing to sign customers up to the VIP club
- Poor handwriting
- Failing to remove security tags properly; and
- Not mopping the floor correctly
Ms Keegan was also addressed in an aggressive and nasty tone and subjected to an isolating atmosphere.
Further, she was excluded from accessing business information that was integral to the performance of her job as assistant store manager.
Three days into her return, the employee was contacted by the employer’s state manager who enquired into how she was finding everything.
Despite the workplace bullying, the employee told the state manager things were good, concerned that her allegations would not be believed.
On the fourth day however, the employee contacted the state manager in tears and relayed to her the extent of what had been happening.
The state manager’s response was to “put some lippy on” and “go home to your bub”.
The next day, instead of taking the complaint seriously and following it up as per company policy, the state manager discussed it with the store manager, asking her to be “mindful” of how she dealt with Ms Keegan.
Following this conversation, the store manager’s treatment of the employee worsened.
Further attempts to contact the state manager went unanswered until finally the employee was advised to “work it out herself”.
Ms Keegan left her employment on stress leave and was unable to return as a consequence of developing a severe psychological condition.
Despite the employer attempting to characterise the store manager’s behaviour as “extremely unremarkable”, the Queensland Supreme Court accepted that Ms Keegan’s serious psychological injury was a result of the workplace harassment and bullying engaged in by the store manager.
Consequently, the employer was liable for both the store manager and state manager’s actions in failing to curb the bullying behaviour and for failing to take the bullying complaint seriously.
Of particular note the employer did not:
- Comply with its own bullying and harassment policy
- Treat the complaint seriously
- Investigate or resolve the complaint; or
- Adopt some other approach to dealing with the complaint
The employee was “left to fend for herself” in her dealings with the store manager.
The Court did not accept the employer’s argument that its employee’s severe psychological response was an extraordinary or unforeseeable reaction.
From the moment the state manager received the employee’s call on the fourth day, the employer was on notice that there was an issue requiring attention.
As a result, the employee was awarded $237,770 in damages.
At the time of publishing, it is not clear whether the employer will appeal this decision.
Lessons for employers
It is not uncommon for bullied employees to be reluctant to report incidents straight away.
How an employer responds to an eventual workplace bullying complaint can directly affect how an employee will decide to proceed should the matter intensify.
Employees now have an arsenal of legal options; from the FWC workplace bullying jurisdiction to common law negligence or FW Act adverse action.
As a general rule, it is crucial for employers to take complaints of workplace bullying seriously from the outset, even where the offending behaviour may not seem significant.
Where an anti-workplace bullying policy is in operation, following the policy and leading by example can be the difference between an internally resolved matter and being forced to pay out out thousands of dollars of compensation.
What is clear is that a failure to investigate a complaint of workplace bullying is fraught with risk and can expose an employer to serious legal claims and liability further down the line.
 Keegan v Sussan Corporation (Aust.) Pty Ltd  QSC 064