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.
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.
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.