An employer (Centrelink) ignored a bullied worker’s “clear signs of distress”, and then had the audacity to tell the psychologically injured worker to return to a role where her managers bullied her. Centrelink was found liable for the worker’s psychological injury.
Bullied worker in clear distress forced to RTW with bullying managers
Background of the workplace bullying case
A Centrelink worker started having difficulties with her managers when she returned to work from maternity leave in mid 2010.
The bullied worker stated that her managers harassed and bullied her between the period of October 2010 and September 2011. Her managers would for example stand over her while the worker sat at her desk; they would belittle and humiliate her in team meetings; they interrogated her about her personal life every 6 weeks ( when her part-time hours were reviewed) and the managers were also making continuous, unwarranted follow-up calls when she wasn’t at work to find out why she wasn’t there.
During this period, the bullied worker said she made a number of bullying and harassment complaints to the national manager, the “harassment contact officer”, her team leader and Human Resources (HR). She also complained to coworkers and managers at 2 different offices, but said that nothing was done about her bullying complaints.
In September 2011, the bullied worker was relocated to a different building to work as part of a temporary secondment. About 1 year later the worker was returned to work in her original office/building, where she had been bullied. Obviously the bullied worker was anxious and stressed having to return to work for her bullying managers and was subsequently certified unfit for work for about 11 months. After that, the worker returned to work in a different office.
Claim for psychological injury denied
The bullied worker lodged a workcover claim however, her employer — Centrelink— denied liability. They denied liability based on the abused defense that her psychological injury was caused by “reasonable administrative action taken in a reasonable manner”.
The injured worker appealed the decision, stating that forcing her to return to her original work place (where she had been bullied) created an “obvious” risk that “goes to the reasonableness of [Centrelink’s] administrative action”.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) found that Centrelink was well aware that it was risky to return the psychologically injured worker to her original role because she had made numerous complaints about it (the workplace bullying) to coworkers and managers.
Comcare had the audacity to deny that any bullying or harassment took place and said there was nothing unreasonable about her managers’ conduct.( WTF!)
At the Hearing, Deputy President (R Handley) agreed that the worker felt threatened and scared when dealing with her managers, and that her employment significantly contributed to her condition.
“It is clear from the background to this matter, including the allegations of harassment and bullying made by [the worker] against her [Hurstville] managers, that [the worker] made her concerns known to a range of personnel within Centrelink”
“Nobody appears to have taken responsibility at the appropriate time for assisting an employee who was showing clear signs of distress“.
“Action was taken by Centrelink to address the problem subsequently but by that stage the damage had been done.”
The Deputy President further stated that directing workers to return to their substantive positions at the end of a temporary secondment “would ordinarily be reasonable administrative action”. However, he said that in this case it was not reasonable “given the past history and the likely reaction of [the worker], of which the employer was on notice”.
You can read the full text of the legal case here: Kosteski and Comcare  AATA 217 (14 April 2014)
COMPENSATION – definition of injury – excludes diseases or injuries resulting from reasonable administrative action taken in a reasonable manner – injury resulted from being told to return to a workplace where she perceived she had been bullied and harassed – employer on notice of perception – should have been clear to employer that insistence on a return to that workplace would likely result in an injury – not reasonable – decision set aside and substituted