I fart in my colleague's general direction: Intentional flatulence as workplace bullying
Intentional flatulence is often cited as evidence of workplace bullying.
Comic geniuses Monty Python were never accused of holding back from crude humour. One of their more memorable lines – “I fart in your general direction” – uttered by the Insulting Frenchman, fits this bill. Yet their scenes are often divorced from reality, skirting outside the bounds of the possible.
However you say it – flatulence, bum sneezes, letting one rip or plain old farting – it is (usually) an involuntary act that is met with embarrassment. This is particularly true in the office, where it certainly is not met with the triumphant gloating of the Insulting Frenchman.
So it may surprise some readers to learn that intentional farts are in fact frequently cited as sources of workplace grievances and evidence of bullying. Not only are accusations levelled that a colleague farted in their general direction, it is often the case that someone farted in their specific direction.
Could it really be that fact, at least when it comes to flatulence in the workplace, is stranger even than Monty Python?
The recent case of Hingst v Construction Engineering involved an allegation that the plaintiff’s immediate supervisor deliberately farted in his specific direction. This resulted in multiple altercations, where the plaintiff, David Hingst, sprayed his supervisor, Greg Short, with deodorant while calling him the imaginative name “Mr Stinky”. Among other allegations, Hingst alleged that Short’s actions amounted to a “complex conspiracy” to “marginalise him and terminate his employment”. This resulted, it was claimed, in Hingst suffering psychiatric injuries.
The Victorian Supreme Court threw the case out, with Justice Rita Zammit ultimately concluding that no bullying had occurred.
Aside from being the source of many jokes, the case raises questions about what constitutes bullying and unacceptable workplace behaviour. Indeed, it raises questions about the potential consequences of even an involuntary act for employees and employers. These consequences could be amplified further in the Australian Public Service, where the APS code of conduct is brought into play.
It is established that a mental element, such as knowledge, intent or recklessness, is not (usually) required to establish a breach of the code. Even in circumstances where a public servant’s behaviour was not deliberate, intentional or even voluntary, it can still be harassment. This is because harassing behaviour is not measured against the perpetrator’s intentions; rather, it is based on whether a reasonable person would conclude the behaviour would humiliate, offend, intimidate or cause a person unnecessary hurt or distress. Had Hingst been an APS employee and made a code of conduct allegation against his supervisor, it is quite possible that the allegations would have been investigated – I have seen lesser allegations upheld.
In Hingst, Zammit found it was the termination of Hingst’s employment that led him to return obsessively to the flatulence episode, which at the time had not created the alleged psychiatric harm. Rather, it was held that Hingst had “reacted in an extreme and unreasonable way to the termination of his employment, which led him to seek revenge against those whom he blames for his loss”. On Hingst’s own admission, had he not lost his job and if other incidents had not occurred, such as an alleged abusive phone call, the flatulence would “never have been a big issue”.
From this, we can hypothesise that a reasonable person would not conclude in these circumstances that Short’s flatulence would humiliate, offend, intimidate or cause Hingst unnecessary hurt or distress. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Short, in an APS workplace, would be found to have breached the code of conduct, again in these specific circumstances.
Having said this, there have been other instances where the act of targeted flatulence would most certainly breach the code. For example, in Bell v Boom Logistics, an act of targeted flatulence was found to “possibly attract dismissal, being an assault”. However, this incident was manifestly targeted: the perpetrator “had his hand on his bum cheek, pulled his cheeks apart and farted in my face”. Of course, Bell is a severe example, but it nevertheless illustrates that involuntary acts can meet the standard required to establish a bullying and harassment – or (as the case may be) a breach of the APS code of conduct.
Should you find yourself in Hingst’s position (or in the shoes of the unfortunate victim in Bell), it is important to report the unwanted conduct to HR. Your employer owes you a duty of care, and in some instances farting, when it is part of a pattern of bullying or abuse, could give rise to a claim in negligence. In such cases, employees must establish that the harm was reasonably foreseeable and recognisable, and the employer failed to take reasonable steps to mitigate that risk. As Justice Robert Osborn provides in Brown v Maurice Blackburn Cashman:
“[A] finding that a particular risk of injury is reasonably foreseeable involves a judgment of ‘fact and value’ and it is a matter of fact for the decision-maker to determine whether a defendant ought to have reasonably foreseen his or her conduct might cause psychiatric injury.”
By contrast, in Hingst, the harm manifested from termination of employment. However, had Hingst suffered psychiatric injury directly from his supervisor’s conduct, the case might have been decided differently.
Whenever conduct is alleged to have caused psychiatric injury, it should always be cause for pause in a workplace. However curious behaviour like alleged targeted flatulence is, even if it doesn’t amount to bullying, as Zammit concluded, it did paint “a picture of the working culture” at the workplace. Those prone to flatulence should take care to ensure their behaviour doesn’t result in messy, if unintended, consequences.
John Wilson is the managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers and an accredited specialist in industrial relations and employment law. He thanks his colleague James Connolly for his help in preparing this article.