Australia Labour, Employment and Workplace Safety Alert 

A District Director of Nursing (DDON), Ms Mary-Rose Robinson has been awarded approximately AUD1.4M in damages (plus costs) after a Queensland Court found that she was subjected to repeated managerial mistreatment by a District Chief Executive Officer, Ms Susan Turner.

The Cape York Health Service (Health Service) DDON successfully claimed that she was subjected to "… management action which harassed, mistreated, devalued and undermined …" her between March 2010 and January 2011.

The crux of her case was that the Health Service failed to:

  • resolve allegations of bullying and harassment made against Ms Robinson in a timely and determinative fashion
  • prevent Ms Turner's " … appalling managerial misconduct … " , which included belittling, undermining, isolating, humiliating and contemptuously disregarding Ms Robinson.

In particular, the Health Service failed to take reasonable care to avoid causing psychiatric injury to Ms Robinson by:

(a) providing her with copies of complaints of alleged bullying and harassment made against her in a timely manner (b) determinatively deal with those complaints.

Rather than investigating the complaints and giving timely advice as to the outcome of such a process, Ms Turner was found to have " … knowingly presiding over a process which drifted on inconclusively, thus knowingly perpetuating the angst Mrs Robinson's awareness of (the complaints) had triggered."

The failure to adequately progress the complaints was "(a) persistent feature of Ms Turner's contribution to Ms Robinson's decline …," which took place despite her awareness that the complaints were the source of Mrs Robinson's ongoing angst and elevated blood pressure.

Ultimately, "(t)he elementary point is that an employee used one of the defendant's systems available to staff to make complaints to the defendant of workplace bullying and harassment and that places a clear onus on the defendant to actually deal with the complaints submitted to it and not let them drift on unresolved."

"Determinative" action means " … some authoritative form of action culminating in a timely conclusion about the complaints and a timely announcement of the action to arise from that conclusion."

The key take away from the decision is that executives must take steps to ensure that systems to respond to allegations of bullying and harassment are properly implemented particularly if they are personally aware that an employee's deterioration is attributable to a delayed outcome.

Signs of deterioration can be unique to an individual, but you should be vigilant in implementing the relevant procedures in the presence of:

  • clear emotional distress, such as tearfulness and sobbing
  • statements that a counsellor, psychologist or general practitioner have been consulted
  • express statements of decline and feelings of vulnerability
  • physical symptoms, such as raised blood pressure.

Timely and authoritative complaint resolution is even more important if your organisation's safety management system provides that complaints are so actioned.