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How workplace conflict can become bullying behaviour

Left unaddressed, workplace conflict can sometimes evolve into allegations of bullying behaviour. A recent decision by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) highlights how the working relationship between a school teacher and Principal deteriorated to the point that an application for an order to stop bullying was made.

Left unaddressed, workplace conflict can sometimes evolve into allegations of bullying behaviour. A recent decision by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) highlights how the working relationship between a school teacher and Principal deteriorated to the point that an application for an order to stop bullying was made.

The Applicant was employed as a teacher at a secondary school in Victoria (the School) in 1998. The new Principal of the School was appointed in 2013. The Applicant alleged that she was subject to “repeated unreasonable behaviour” by the Principal from late 2013 to mid 2015.

Before Deputy President Gostencnik, the Applicant made a series of allegations (a total of 16 incidents) which she claimed were bullying by the Principal toward her including that the Principal:

  • Did not allocate the Applicant with a classroom and an office during renovations;
  • Inaccurately referred to one of the Applicant’s coordination of a “Recycled Goods Market” as a “Recycled Fashion Parade” in an email to all staff (and the subsequent email exchange) – (it was this email in the chain of events that caused things to become out of control);
  • Would glare and stare at the Applicant in staff meetings;
  • Appointed a non-teaching staff member to conduct the Applicant’s annual review meeting, which was not the normal procedure;
  • Singled the Applicant out about her sick leave;
  • Advised the Applicant that her long service leave had not been approved yet when it was approved;
  • Required the Applicant to undertake a new staff induction upon her return from long service leave; and
  • Assigned a more junior teacher as a mentor for the Applicant upon her return from long service leave.

DP Gostencnik noted that whether the behaviour of the Principal was reasonable management action conducted in a reasonable manner “depended on the action taken, the circumstances, the way in which the action impacts upon the worker, the implementation of the action and any other relevant matters.”

At the outset, DP Gostencnik commented that it was a “sad indictment” that the FWC was required to intervene to resolve the interpersonal conflict between the Principal and the Applicant.

After he considered each of the alleged incidents, he determined that there were four instances where behaviour alleged was not reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner. In some circumstances, the Applicant was the only employee who was subject to the action (i.e. treated differently) and accordingly it was held that those incidents were not reasonable management actions. In particular, it was held that the Principal’s advice to the Applicant that her long service leave was yet to be approved was due to her irritation because she believed the Applicant had gossiped about her.

DP Gostencnik held that the Principal’s behaviour in the four incidents was repeated unreasonable behaviour which caused a risk to the Applicant’s health and safety, that is that the Principal had bullied the Applicant. He refrained from making orders and instead encouraged the parties to mediate the matter in order to repair the professional working relationship.

The facts of this decision highlight the risks to employers of ensuring that low level workplace conflict (e.g. differing views about how a task should be done, or a personality clash between two employees) does not evolve and escalate to a bullying complaint. For example, an email exchange between the Applicant and the Principal was remarked upon as an example of “how molehills become mountains.”

Employers should monitor the conduct and behaviour of employees and be prepared to intervene when conduct is not appropriate. For many small businesses or workplaces, workplace conflict could be detrimental to employee morale and the business. Of course, all workplaces should have regular anti-bullying training to remind employees about the kinds of behaviour that are not acceptable.

 

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog, or from links on this website to any external website. Where applicable, liability is limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

 

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