In brief - Workplace law compliance starts at the top
The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Queensland to award a psychiatrically injured employee significant damages provides a stark reminder for school Principals and Boards: failure to identify and address bullying behaviours could cost you millions.
EMPLOYER HELD LIABLE IN NEGLIGENCE AS A RESULT OF CEO'S BULLYING BEHAVIOURS
In Robinson v State of Queensland  QSC 165, the Supreme Court of Queensland has awarded an executive employee $1,468,991.11 in damages (plus costs) after finding that she had been subjected to “repeated managerial mistreatment” by her boss, the CEO of a health organisation in Queensland. The employer was held to have been liable in negligence for failing in its duty of care to provide a safe system of work.
The Court found that over the period of a year, the CEO engaged in “unjustified blaming, humiliation, belittling, isolation, undermining and contemptuous disregard” towards the employee, which resulted in the employee ceasing work permanently and developing a serious psychiatric injury.
The bullying conduct fell into the following categories:
- isolating the employee and flippantly excluding her from decision making and team meetings
- unjustified blaming and humiliatingly loud and public "dressing down" of the employee in front of other staff
- failing to inform the employee of allegations made against her and failing to provide allegations in writing despite repeated requests
- making decisions impacting upon the teams managed by the employee without consulting her and communicating these decisions to staff without advising her
PSYCHIATRIC INJURY REASONABLY FORESEEABLE, CEO'S POSITION OF POWER A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR COURT FINDS
The Court found that it was reasonably foreseeable that an employee might suffer a psychiatric injury if subjected to an incremental course of bullying behavior over a period of time. The judge stated (at ):
In an era when the potentially grave psychological harm done by workplace harassment and bullying is well known, unjustified blaming, humiliation, belittling, isolation, undermining and contemptuous disregard of an employee by a CEO was conduct collectively raising a foreseeable and not insignificant risk of psychiatric injury.
The position the CEO occupied was also held to contribute to the nature of the injury because “the fact that someone with such a powerful influence over the employee’s fate in the workplace is so targeting the employee will obviously tend to have such a crushing impact upon the employee as to heighten the inherent risk of psychiatric injury”. (At .)
The Court was persuaded that the employer should be held vicariously responsible for conduct of the CEO, given the CEO's “position of power in the workplace relative to that of the psychiatrically injured employee”. (Ibid.)
TAKE AWAY TIPS FOR SCHOOLS TO MANAGE CORPORATE GOVERNANCE RISK
While anti-bullying orders in the Fair Work Commission are not aimed at compensating victims of bullying, the same is not so if a bullying cause of action is based on common law negligence and filed in the Supreme Court. In serious cases, compensation could amount to millions of dollars.
Senior employees in schools who engage in bullying behaviours towards employees pose an unacceptable corporate governance risk. Workplace law compliance must start at the top. Principals and other senior staff will not be immune from the legal consequences.
Schools or other organisations in the education sector with poorly behaving senior employees are strongly encouraged to take immediate precautions and seek legal advice.
This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2022.