Is it 'reasonable management action' or bullying?

Fair Work says employer's decisions not 'personal'

Is it 'reasonable management action' or bullying?

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) recently dealt with the case of a worker who questioned the employer’s business decisions, arguing that some incidents amounted to bullying in the workplace.

For almost 40 years, the worker has provided tennis coaching services at St. Anthony’s Tennis Club in Marsfield, Sydney, through his company, AJH Leisure Pty Ltd (AJH).

For about 8 years, AJH also acted as the tennis court administrator for the Club. The Club terminated AJH's contract in September 2020. Despite this, AJH continues to offer tennis coaching services at the premises and enjoys a preferred arrangement for renting the courts.

The worker alleged that he experienced workplace bullying from the Club’s committee members. The reported bullying behavior includes aggressive or intimidating conduct (such as outbursts during meetings, public rants, and verbal abuse), demeaning or humiliating comments (including unsubstantiated accusations in meetings), spreading malicious rumors (defamation of character through words, posters, and emails), setting unreasonable work expectations (limiting communication, withholding information, making changes to the work environment, including court access restrictions, locked gates, and turning off court lighting), and approaching other AJH staff with job offers elsewhere.

The worker claimed that these events posed risks to his physical and emotional health, leading to increased blood pressure, tension, headaches, and frustration due to a lack of communication regarding the disputes. However, no medical evidence was presented in the case.

Additionally, the worker said that the Club is attempting to push him out by altering his business and disrupting his coaching team. He sought transparency about decisions impacting AJH, the restoration of the former contract for Tennis Court Administrator between AJH and the Club, refunds, and a negotiated reasonable court hire fee rate.

During the worker’s tenure as Tennis Court Administrator, he handled court bookings for the Club, including collecting fees. Payments were recorded in a spreadsheet on his computer, with received funds stored in a drawer until the end of each month when they were deposited.

Initially, he deducted AJH's fees from the collected monies before depositing the remainder into the Club's account. This arrangement is detailed in an email from the former Club Treasurer, suggesting the Club's preference for a monthly invoice covering services and court expenses, aligned with monthly deposits. However, this arrangement changed over time, with AJH's management fee being paid first and then AJH using that money to pay its term fees.

Around May 2020, the worker was informed in writing about changes to AJH's role for the Club, mainly concerning the use of a new online booking system. These changes included a request for him to confirm existing permanent bookings so they could be integrated into the new system by June 2020.

With the alleged bullying incidents as well as the changes that the management implemented, the worker filed for a stop bullying order.

Was there bullying in the workplace?

The FWC explained that a worker is “bullied at work” if a person or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker (or a group of workers of which they are a member) while they are at work in a constitutionally-covered business, and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

“Bullying at work does not include reasonable management action that is carried out in a reasonable manner,” it said.

In its decision, the Commission found that the worker “found the Committee’s new direction, and its associated requests and lack of support, confronting.”

“[The parties] could have handled their disagreements in a more respectful and professional manner.  But that is all they were – disagreements about business decisions the Committee was entitled to make,” it added.

“While his input was sought on behalf of AJH, it was not his role or responsibility to seek to challenge those decisions once made.”

Thus, it said the Committee’s actions, either as a group or through the actions of its individual members, [did not] involve bullying at work.”

“It was not repeatedly unreasonable behaviour toward [the worker], creating a risk to health and safety. The Committee’s actions were mostly directed at the  Club’s  commercial  arrangements,  including  with  AJH,  rather  than  toward  [him] personally.”

“Perhaps acting on the advice of others, he decided early on not to cooperate fully with some of the Committee’s requests, and later acted in ways that only served to further the conflict between them,” it said.

Thus, the Commission rejected the bullying allegations and dismissed his application.

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