Can a management meeting amount to 'bullying'?

by Victoria Bruce21 Apr 2016
The recent case of a federal police worker who lost her workers compensation claim despite suffering bullying and sexual harassment at work should serve as a timely reminder for employers on how to handle meetings with employees.

The female AFP worker claimed compensation for psychiatric injury, basing her claim on a distressing meeting she had with her supervisor and a colleague, from which she went home and was later certified as unfit to return to work.

The federal police worker also alleged she was bullied, intimidated and sexually harassed by colleagues over a three-year period between 2010 and 2013.

Federal insurer Comcare initially rejected her claim for compensation and after the Administrative Appeals Tribunal found in the employee’s favour last year, Comcare launched its own successful appeal case.

The argument Comcare gave was that the tribunal had erred by dealing with a claim for injury that was "fundamentally different" to the original claim, which was based on the employee’s management meeting.

Patricia Ryan, Principal at The Workplace employment lawyers says this is because the meeting was classified as a “reasonable management action” and thus exempt from compensation claim.

“Legislation in the ACT and in the states specifically excludes claims for compensation at work where the stress or anxiety caused follows on from “reasonable management action.”,” Ryan told HC Online.

“Common examples of this are meetings to put allegations of misconduct or to discuss non-performance,” she says.

“While these no doubt can be stressful; an employee cannot make a claim for any resulting psychiatric injury from the stress of the meeting where the company’s action was reasonable.”

The main lesson for HR professionals in this instance is to ensure the company is acting reasonably in calling and conducting the meeting, or risk exposing their employer to a costly compensation claim.

Ryan says HR professionals can take a number of steps to limit their employer’s liability.

This includes giving employees adequate notice of the meeting, the rule of thumb being 24 hours, and inviting the employee to bring a support person if they choose.

HR should advise the employee on the purpose of the meeting and who else will be attending.

 “Don’t load the meeting with unnecessary company representatives and make it clear that the employee will have an opportunity to respond and put their case,” Ryan says.

HR should consider sending the employee home until the meeting is held, and remind them of the workplace EAP, if one exists.

When it’s time to hold the meeting, HR should ensure employees are not bombarded by a range of issues, instead each issue should be addressed separately, allowing time for responses and breaks if the meeting gets heated or emotional.

The employee should be provided with minutes afterwards and made aware of the next steps, Ryan says, and if decisions are to be made, they should be made as soon as reasonably practical.

 HR also needs to be aware of the legal pitfalls that can arise from such a meeting and take steps to mitigate these risks, she says.

“The employee may allege a lack of procedural fairness and allege that any decision made or action taken is therefore itself wrong. This could mean challenging a disciplinary outcome in court,” Ryan says.

If the employee alleges that the meeting did not go in accordance with any dispute resolution mechanisms in their Enterprise Award, they could also challenge this in court.  

“The employee may allege they were bullied in the meeting and seek a “stop bullying order” from the Fair Work Commission,” Ryan says.

“The bullying legislation however has a similar defence of “reasonable management action” is not bullying.”

Ryan says HR can ensure management meetings are reasonable by doing the following:

-              Look at the circumstances that gave rise to the management action;
-              Look at the consequences;
-              The action only has to be reasonable – the test is not that it could have been MORE reasonable;
-              The action need not be perfect or ideal
-              The action may be reasonable even if certain steps were not
-              The action must be lawful (not illegally taping for example or refusing to let a person leave a room against their will)
-              The action must be actually unreasonable – it is not enough that the worker perceives it to be
-              Action could be unreasonable if it departs from established practice and procedures without good cause.
-              Must not be “irrational, absurd or ridiculous” 

Similar stories:

Workers comp awarded for phobia-inducing transfer
Damages awarded to festival-going employee
Public servants blaming managers for rising psychological injury
Employer under fire for sacking worker with cancer


  • by Steven Kalavity 28/04/2016 2:38:16 PM

    Management meetings, if used by an enterprise, should be elaborated on within their policies, first of all. Bullies routinely use the tactic of the "ambush meeting", so much so that it is written about. This demonstrates that the most destructive bullying is done through collusion of the organization hierarchy not just a rogue bully. In my case, I was invited to the "ambush meeting" without any warning. I asked for minute of the meeting and was refused them. I wanted to file a grievance. HR is corrupted by corrupt management. It is that simple. One cannot expect a fair process or meeting when policy and process is ignored and no record is kept. Later, HR did have falsified minutes of the meeting in my personnel file which I received following my leaving the company through the UK Data Protection Act. But, it cost a lot of money and time to prove forgery and fraud even then. This is the stage I am in now. I think workplace bullying is an illegal form of corruption where the abuse of position is allowed to control a corrupt processes and a false narrative in many cases. The process needs third party oversight like most enterprise corruption detection.

  • by Jalicia52 1/09/2017 5:23:51 PM

    Oh how this resonates with me. The Call Centre Manager casually walks up and asks me "can we have a quick catch-up in 15mins". Long story short, 15mins later I'm facing her, the Health & Safety Team Lead & someone else later identified as Senior HR Advisor. But hey, it's "ONLY" an "informal meeting". Well, that's how they define informal - "I define it as an AMBUSH" advising me that they plan to Medically Retire me as one day I might injure myself and I may not be able to perform the inherent components of my role because I have reported (this is mandatory) hand pain 4 times in 3 years due to inappropriate equipment and incorrect workstation set up. Oh, lets not forget, this was informal so emphatic no notes or minutes taken when then they were asked to provide them.
    But wait, there's more, 3 months later in response to my application to our Fair work Commission for discrimination and bullying they suddenly realise that the must have each taken notes because each fabricated documents and provided these as evidence denying everything that they had done and said at that meeting.
    Corruption is definitely the way to describe these behaviours. HR is worse because they are all too frequently active participants in workplace bullying and if not wouldn't recognise it if it bit them on the butt.
    While ever our governing and regulatory bodies including Worksafe have no power or stomach to make them accountable then nothing is going to change.
    The Worksafe guy asked me what I wanted to happen and I said I "want them to be held accountable for their actions". His reply to that was "Oh, so you are wanting revenge then?????
    With this coming from the Safety Regulator what hope do we have?
    They then have the absolute arrogance and gall to say they are willing to offer to provide a Certificate of Service as settlement conditional upon me signing a "deed of settlement" as full and final settlement of any and all claims with a Non Disclosure Clause.. Geez, how stupid do they really believe we are.

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