HR manager ‘distressed’ by performance review files lawsuit

Cites 'repudiatory breaches of contract' by Siemens after termination

HR manager ‘distressed’ by performance review files lawsuit

The Supreme Court of Victoria dealt with the case of an HR manager who believed she was wronged after a meeting left her “distressed” over a negative performance review.

In her lawsuit, she said the meeting, conducted by the regional HR head, breached the employer’s company guidelines, which in turn violated her employment contract.

The employee worked as an HR manager for Siemens Mobility Australia between July 2018 and March 2020. In July 2019, she had a telephone meeting with the regional HR head for a performance discussion.

According to records, she received “some negative feedback about aspects of her performance” and “became distressed and left work immediately after the meeting ended.”

She was unable to work the following day and for some time afterward and took a period of personal leave. Later, she complained about the regional HR head’s conduct in the meeting but was “dissatisfied” with how Siemens responded.

The employment relationship continued to sour after her return to work in late October 2019, and in March 2020, Siemens Mobility decided that the relationship had “irretrievably” broken down and terminated her employment.

The employee’s lawsuit

The employee argued that she was entitled to damages for breach of her employment contract. She said that Siemens’ Business Conduct Guidelines (BCG) were incorporated into her contract and that various statements in it had “contractual effect.”

She submitted that the regional HR head’s conduct during the meeting, and Siemens Mobility’s response, were “repudiatory breaches of contract,” for which she is entitled to substantial damages, including exemplary damages.

HRD previously reported on the case of a worker who was unreceptive to feedback from a newly appointed supervisor. Because of her resistance, she was terminated from her employment.

In another case, a teacher questioned the implementation of an improvement program, adding that he did not agree that his performance was “substandard.”

What were the contents of the BCG?

Essentially, the BCG sets out the “basic principles of the company,” which enumerates the ethical and behavioural standards of the business, including:

  • an obligation of respecting her personal dignity
  • an obligation not to discriminate against her
  • an obligation of trust
  • an obligation to create a trusting working environment for her
  • an obligation to openly deal with mistakes when they arose in the workplace, among others.

The employee argued that this “set of principles” were incorporated into her employment contract, such that any breach would entitle her to damages.

Siemens submitted that it was “not contractually obliged to comply with the BCG because it was not incorporated into her employment contract.”

Even if it were, the company said the terms “were vague, uncertain and aspirational, and therefore not contractual in nature.”

What happened during the meeting?

The Supreme Court said that the regional HR head’s version of events should also be considered. For his part, he said that his behaviour towards the employee was “respectful, courteous, and professional.”

He said he did not “bully, demean, denigrate, humiliate or harass her,” and instead, he “conscientiously attempted to have a difficult conversation about her performance, which was his duty as her manager.”

“There were genuinely held concerns about her performance,” he said. This included an observation that she lacked “strategic focus,” feedback also given by other managers who worked with her.

“The scheduled meeting was the appropriate occasion on which to bring these concerns to her attention, and an opportunity for her to provide her perspective in response. It was not an ambush or an attempt to remove her from her employment,” the court said.

As to the “contractual force of the BCG,” the court said there was none. “It was a set of conduct guidelines that defined the standards of behaviour that Siemens expected of its employees at all levels of the business, wherever it was conducted worldwide.”

“The sections of the BCG under the headings ‘Our basic principles’ and ‘We look after each other and ourselves’ contained statements of general principle and exhortations to employees behave in accordance with the law, honestly, safely, and with respect and care for each other.”

“The language used was not promissory and did not convey contractual obligations,” the court said.

Thus, it ruled that the employee was not able to prove the claimed breaches of her employment contract and is not entitled to damages.

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