Resources: Blogs

School’s out


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.


Similar articles

Employer found liable for workers compensation despite worker’s unreasonable perceptions

Fact or fiction

A recent decision of the New South Wales Personal Injury Commission serves as a reminder of the differing standards of proof when determining liability for claims of bullying and/or harassment under workers compensation laws and the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).


Hybrid Working: Performance Management and Workplace Behaviour

The second instalment of our 2022 webinar series continues the focus on the employment ‘life cycle’. During the course of this webinar, we will explore the challenges faced by employers when managing the new hybrid workplace.


Bullying allegations used as a tactic to direct attention away from an employee’s misconduct

Bullying tactics

It is not uncommon for employees to raise allegations against Employers in order to divert attention away from, or attempt to excuse their own misconduct.


Commission confirms inappropriate touching constituted sexual harassment warranting summary dismissal

‘Scuse you

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been the subject of significant reform over the past few years, with an even greater onus on employers now to take proactive measures to minimise or eliminate the risk of sexual harassment in connection with work.


Employers delay sinks bid for injunctive relief

Speak now

When seeking to enforce a restraint, it is important that employers seek to enforce the restraint in a timely manner to prevent future or an ongoing breach. Any delay will be considered by the courts when assessing whether it is reasonable to enforce the restraint.


Two-year post-employment restraint on hairdresser found to be unreasonable

Splitting hairs

When it comes to drafting post-employment restraints in employment contracts, it is important for employers to consider the purpose of the restraint and whether or not the restraint reasonably serves that purpose.


Let's talk

please contact our directors to discuss how ouR expertise can help your business.

We're here to help

Contact Us
Let Workplace Law become your partner in Workplace Relations.

Sign up to receive the latest industry updates with commentary from the Workplace Law team direct to your inbox.