The Fair Work Commission has found that a school principal bullied a teacher in a case that highlights how repeated unreasonable behaviour towards an employee in separate incidents can have a cumulative effect and constitute workplace bullying.
Implications for employers
- Repeated unreasonable behaviour towards a worker in separate, unrelated incidents can have a cumulative effect and constitute workplace bullying.
- Even where bullying has been established, the Fair Work Commission may be reluctant to make an order under section 789FF of the Fair Work Act where it considers the parties of the dispute have a damaged working relationship which is best resolved through the parties’ efforts and assisted by a series of mediated or facilitated meetings.
On 25 May 2015, Ms Purcell made an application for an order to stop bullying pursuant to section 789FC of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act). Ms Purcell identified sixteen separate incidents occurring from late 2013 and continuing after her return from long service leave in mid-2015 which she argued together constituted repeated unreasonable behaviour by the Principal of St Aloysius College towards her. The sixteen incidents included the Principal’s angry glares and other expressions of hostility and the assignment of a mentor to Ms Purcell following her return from long service leave.
Section 789FD of the FW Act provides that a worker is bullied at work if an individual or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker or a group of workers of which the worker is a member and that behaviour creates a risk to the worker’s health or safety.
Under section 789FF of the FW Act, if a worker has made an application under section 789FC and the Fair Work Commission is satisfied that the worker has been bullied by an individual or a group of individuals and there is a risk that the worker will continue to be bullied, the Commission may make any order it considers appropriate to prevent the worker from being bullied at work by the individual or the group.
Out of the sixteen incidents, the Commission found that the following four incidents constituted unreasonable behaviour by the Principal towards Ms Purcell:
- the Principal’s nomination of Mr Coates (the Business Manager) to participate in Ms Purcell’s Annual Review Meeting (ARM) because, amongst other factors, Mr Coates was not a trained teacher, the Principal knew Ms Purcell had had recent “unpleasant dealings” with Mr Coates at the time and Mr Coates was not allocated to conduct any other teacher’s ARM;
- the Principal knowingly misled Mr Purcell about the status of her long service leave application because of a groundless suspicion that Ms Purcell had been gossiping about her;
- allowing the Deputy Principal to require Ms Purcell to undertake induction training upon her return to work after long service leave despite Ms Purcell having been employed at the College for approximately 20 years; and
- assigning Ms Purcell with a mentor with less teaching experience than Ms Purcell upon her return to work after long service leave.
The Commission considered none of the above four incidents constituted reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.
The Commission found the allocation of a mentor and the requirement that Ms Purcell undertake induction training was insulting, embarrassing and humiliating in the circumstances. The Principal’s misleading communication about Ms Purcell’s long service leave application was calculated to cause uncertainty in her mind and her nomination of Mr Coates to conduct Ms Purcell’s ARM did not have a legitimate purpose and was likely to cause Ms Purcell distress given her dealings with him.
The Commission further found that the four incidents, taken together, amounted to repeated unreasonable behaviour by the Principal towards Ms Purcell. This behaviour was likely to have heightened Ms Purcell’s level of distress and created risk to her mental health. It followed that Ms Purcell was bullied at work within the meaning of section 789FD of the FW Act.
Despite his finding that Ms Purcell was bullied at work, Deputy President Gostencnik declined to make a stop bullying order pursuant to section 789FF of the FW Act. Instead, Deputy President Gostencnik proposed that the parties give consideration to participating in a series of mediated or facilitated meetings with the aim of repairing their damaged working relationship. However, if one or both of the parties are not willing to participate, the parties are to file consent directions to facilitate the expeditious hearing and determination of whether orders should be made pursuant to section 789FF of the FW Act.
Ms Susan Purcell v Ms Mary Farah and Mercy Education Ltd T/A St Aloysius College  FWC 2308