‘Over the top’ discipline: rethinking bullying in the public service

Recent cases show that bullying in the public service can take place through otherwise legitimate mechanisms, such as reassignment decisions and misconduct investigations. Employment lawyer John Wilson explains.

The Fair Work Commission’s anti-bullying jurisdiction has been the subject of controversy since its inception in 2014.

Legislative amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 empowered the commission to issue “stop bullying orders” to protect employees from continuing to be bullied at work. But the jurisdiction has been lambasted as ineffective, with only a handful of orders made in the past three years.

To establish bullying under the Fair Work Act, a worker needs to show that an individual, or group of individuals, has repeatedly behaved unreasonably towards the worker, and that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. Actions which constitute reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner are not bullying (regardless of the health consequences). For the commission to make a stop bullying order, they must also be satisfied that there is a risk the worker will continue to be bullied at work.

Bullying in the public sector can be particularly pernicious. This is because public sector employees are often inclined to remain in the public service, whereas their private sector counterparts are more likely to jump ship to escape poor workplace behaviours. Also, the kind of easily identified conduct that amounts to classic bullying (such as swearing, and physical and verbal abuse) is often absent in public sector clerical workplaces, but replaced with more subtle forms.

If Sabrina in accounts deliberately sneezes in your lunch every Friday, it is probably relatively easy to show that you are being bullied by Sabrina. But consider the scenario where Sabrina makes a complaint that you have been ignoring her, and that you adopted a disrespectful tone in a staff meeting a few months ago. Sabrina is finding this very stressful. HR commences an investigation to determine if you have misconducted yourself. HR decides that in the meantime, you need to be removed from your usual duties. Could you be the victim of workplace bullying by HR?

The 2017 case of Coulson raised this possibility. The applicant alleged that she had been bullied by a number of senior personnel at a federal department via:

  1. Being subjected to several unnecessary decisions to suspend or reassign her duties during a misconduct investigation; and
  2. A continuation of the reassignment decision after the misconduct investigation concluded there had been no misconduct.

The department applied to have the stop bullying application dismissed on the grounds that it was frivolous or vexatious or had no reasonable prospects of success. In particular they argued that the initial reassignment decision was reasonable management action.

Commissioner John Kovacic refused to accept that the claim had “no reasonable prospects of success” and permitted the case to proceed to hearing. This judgment suggests that “over the top” disciplinary actions can amount to bullying. Admittedly, the bar for the commission to dismiss was a high one but the judgment does give hope to public sector employees who find themselves the subject of a string of administrative actions as part of bullying conduct.

In another recent case, Burbeck v Alice Springs Town Council, the commission issued a stop bullying order after finding that disciplinary action was “retaliatory and punitive”. While commissioner Nicholas Wilson found both the employer and employee to be at fault, he wished to “reset the employment relationship” and therefore made a range of orders. These required the council to arrange anti-bullying training for staff, and to review its disciplinary procedures.

We may need to expand the stereotypical, steal-your-lunch-money concept of bullying to address the potentially more insidious forms of workplace bullying that can emerge in modern bureaucratic workplaces. There are signs the law is adapting to accommodate this reality.

John Wilson is managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love. His firm acted for the applicant in Coulson.

First published in the Mandarin.