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Abused and belittled: not 'reasonable management action'

Found to have contributed towards the employee’s psychological injury.
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Abused and belittled: not

Abused and belittled: not 'reasonable management action'

2 November 2020

By Mike Toten

An employer was found to have significantly contributed towards an employee’s psychological injury, resulting in liability for workers’ compensation. This happened after the employee’s supervisor shouted at her, belittled her and set unreasonable work outcomes for her, in front of her co-workers.

The Queensland Industrial Relations Commission ruled that the tone and demeanour used by managers when dealing with their staff needs to be taken into account when determining whether management action was reasonable.


Facts of case

The woman was a night shift employee at retailer Coles. Her workers’ compensation claim was for an adjustment disorder claimed to be caused by several months of bullying by her supervisor. The starting point appeared to be when the supervisor had to take her to hospital with concussion after a work accident, causing the supervisor to complain about missing a family dinner.

The alleged incidents over a three-month period after that included:
  • Abusing her during a team huddle for having failed to ensure her work team completed a shelf-stacking task, then cutting her off every time she attempted to reply. The huddle turned into a shouting match between the two.
  • Three days later, calling her to a meeting with three other managers without prior notice, refusing to allow a support person to attend, and laughing at her when she tried to raise her grievances. A power imbalance existed when this occurred.
  • Requiring her to perform higher duties without receiving the extra pay or recognition they should have attracted. She claimed this made her feel “used” and “worthless”. She had complained to HR about the pay and status issue, but it was not satisfactorily resolved.
  • Generally ignoring and avoiding contact with the employee.

The employee was diagnosed as suffering from an adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression.

When the employee claimed these events had caused a psychological injury, the employer claimed that they amounted to reasonable management actions. The Queensland Workers’ Compensation Regulator agreed with Coles and rejected her workers’ compensation claim, but the employee appealed against that decision.


Decision

The Commission upheld the appeal and set aside the Regulator’s decision. It said that the supervisor’s actions were not “reasonable management action” for the following reasons:
  • She let the huddle escalate to a point where she was shouting at the employee in a very confronting manner, and the employee was shouting back at her.
  • She called the employee into the meeting without warning, placed unreasonable pressure on her and created a power imbalance.
  • Failing to properly manage the higher duties/pay issue was unreasonable. Her job required her to know what employees actually did and to manage their expectations properly.

The Commission added that language used by managers, their tone of voice and general demeanour in conversations all determined whether those conversations amounted to “reasonable management action”.

Because of the above, the supervisor’s actions were the major, significant contributing factor to the employee’s psychological injury.

The employer’s investigations of the complaints of bullying and the pay/status dispute were reasonable actions, but the actions that led to them were not.

The bottom line: Although decided in a workers’ compensation context and in a State Industrial Relations Commission, the finding that the tone and context of conversations with supervisors may not be “reasonable management action” may have implications for cases involving “stop bullying” claims before the Fair Work Commission. In the latter, bullying does not occur if the employer’s conduct amounted to taking reasonable management action.

Relevant factors will be whether the supervisor’s conduct was loud, aggressive or intimidating; whether a power imbalance between the parties existed; whether co-workers or other managers were present at the time; tone of voice; language used; body language and whether the employee had any opportunity to respond.

For bullying claims under the Fair Work Act 2009, the conduct also has to be repeated or ongoing, and there must be a likelihood that it will continue to occur (which means the victim must still be employed).


Read the judgment

King v Workers’ Compensation Regulator [2020] QITC 180, 21 October 2020

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