HR manager told to emulate ‘Pretty Woman’ was fairly dismissed, court rules

by Chloe Taylor23 Nov 2015
The former HR manager of the Catholic Education Office Diocese (CEOD) of Parramatta has been found to have been justifiably dismissed, after her alleged bullying of employees led to her dismissal.

During her tenure at the CEOD, Karen Wroughton was alleged to have bullied and harassed staff.

Her behaviour was found by her employer to have created fear and intimidation, and ultimately impacted her team, as well as other teams and general workplace productivity.

Following her dismissal, Wroughton took her case to the Federal Court – however, it was dismissed by the judge, who found that she had created “a climate of intimidation and fear” that led to a breakdown in workplace relationships.

Sexual harassment and adverse action allegations

Wroughton alleged she had been sacked for taking sick leave in order to recover from a mental breakdown.

She also claimed that one of her male superiors had sexually harassed her by asking her to take part in an interview in his hotel room, and also by advising her to “do the Pretty Woman thing” when addressing male colleagues.

Wroughton also told the court that the same man had complimented her on several occasions.

In allegations against a different male boss, she said that her breasts had been “leered at” while the man said: “I think we are going to get along just fine”.

In his decision, the Hon. Justice Geoffrey Flick wrote that because Wroughton had not complained to the Human Rights Commission, the Federal Court did not have jurisdiction to entertain any claim for relief made under the Sex Discrimination Act.

The CEOD had argued that the Sex Discrimination Act is not deemed a “workplace law” by the definition in the Fair Work Act, because it is not a law “that regulates the relationships between employers and employees”.

Responses to the allegations

Justice Flick concluded that no action was taken against Wroughton because she sought to exercise any workplace right; because she had a “mental disability”; or because she was temporarily absent from work.

Although in most circumstances instructing an employee to emulate 'Pretty Woman' would be preceived as inappropriate, the Judge found that the incident “could not accurately be described as ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature’”.

It was argued that the reference to the Julia Roberts movie was intended to encourage behaviour like Richard Gere’s character, who secured the attention of sales staff after assuring them he would spend an “obscene amount of cash” in their store.

The Judge agreed that the “objective, it was understood, was to convey to Ms Wroughton that a less judgmental approach on her part when dealing with other persons may better achieve a desired outcome”.

He added that interpreting the advice to be a suggestion of sexualised behaviour was "open to serious question".

“The context in which Mr Whitby made the comment was not a context in which he was suggesting that Ms Wroughton was to conduct herself as “the pretty woman”; the context was rather that of suggesting to her a change in the manner in which she dealt with people,” Justice Flick said.

It was also found that the interview referred to by Wroughton had been moved from the hotel reception to a private room to avoid the interference of background noise, as it involved two other people who had participated via Skype.

The allegations of "leering" were not investigated. 

Bullying allegations

While Wroughton's claims were dismissed, an independent investigation into allegations of Wroughton’s bullying was accepted by the court.

The investigation had found “resounding evidence” that the HR manager had behaved aggressively towards her colleagues. This conduct was partially manifested in her giving co-workers the “silent treatment”, and making “competent employees appear incompetent in the hope they would resign”.

Justice Flick found that not only had Wroughton’s conduct created fear and intimidation, but it had impacted on other teams and overall productivity.

“This long-running dispute has been extremely costly for the organisation, with the disruption and ongoing gossip in the workplace a hidden but additional cost,” it was found.

Wroughton had claimed that her dismissal was related to mental illness, absence from work and the exercising of her workplace rights. However, these claims were rejected; it was found that the termination had rather occurred as a consequence of her lack of trust, respect and confidence in the workplace.

COMMENTS

  • by Bernie Althofer 24/11/2015 12:04:49 PM

    Communication seems to have been at the centre of this case, and no doubt will be raised in other cases.

    Whilst the comments alledged to have been made were supposed to convey a message about a specific approach, it appears that another message was heard.

    All too often it seems that even with the advent of micro aggressions, some discussions or comments made in 'good faith' are not taken that way. It also seems that whilst many workplaces acknowledge the importance of communication, little time is invested in providing managers and workers with an opportunity to practice some key elements e.g. paraphrasing and clarifying. In addition, it seems that few managers and workers have been exposed to the concept of the Ladder of Inference and immediately jump to conclusions when they see or hear something, without establishing a context.

    It also seems that in some workplaces, two workers can say exactly the same thing to other workers, and whilst the comments made by one are seen as 'funny', the same comments made by the other worker are seen as 'creepy' and bordering on offensive.

    It is my observation that whilst organisations do conduct presentations on sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and workplace bullying to name a few counterproductive workplace behaviours, participants may seldom be given an opportunity to test their knowledge and/or understanding. For example, in a workshop environment if participants were asked to explain their understanding of the "Pretty Woman' comment, I have no doubt there would be a significant variation in the responses. As a way of stimulating learning to create changes in behaviour, case studies or scenarios could be useful as a way of developing a deeper understanding. This in turn might lead managers and workers to understand why some people might find the comments offensive, distasteful, or even humourous. The point is that without an open and transparent discussion, some people might never really understand the significance of their day to day communication, and how what they say, might be interpreted in another way.

    It is increasingly obvious that workplace banter that was 'accepted' even ten years ago, is no longer acceptable. Individuals do struggle because in this day and age, generational differences combined with 'tastes' in music and reading can mean that the constant bombardment of individuals through direct and indirect 'messages' about gender, religious beliefs and even race can mean that people end up not being able to separate those messages from acceptable workplace behaviour.

    Some of the problems in this case may have been reduced or negated if explicit explanations had been provided and making sure that it was the Richard Gere approach and not creating a perception about being more like the Julie Roberts character.

  • by 30/11/2015 4:40:09 PM

    What was at the centre of this case was a dysfunctional organisation. As the layers of dysfunctionality were uncovered and challenged the perpetrators were protected and the whistleblower dismissed.

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