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Workplace bullying – who’s responsible?

Emily Shoemark

23 Jan 2019

Topics

  • Employment Law

Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace is not uncommon. Many people believe that employers will be held liable for the conduct of their employees if one employee bullies or injures another. However, this isn’t always the case – especially when the employer has enforced a rigorous policy to prevent injury. In this article, Emily Shoemark and Byron Knight discuss a case heard in the District Court of Queensland that deals with bullying in the workplace.

The case

The case – Robinson v Lorna Jane Pty Ltd (2017) – concerned alleged bullying, both in person and through social media.

The complainant, Ms Robinson, was a manager at a Lorna Jane store. She claimed that her supervisor, Ms McCarthy, bullied her during work hours and through several posts on Facebook. Ms Robinson also argued that this behaviour caused her a psychiatric illness and triggered her pre-existing disorder to return.

The Court found in favour of Lorna Jane. In particular, they made findings that the employer was not vicariously liable for the actions of Ms McCarthy. Important factors were that Lorna Jane:

  • had comprehensive policies on social media and bullying
  • responded to the bullying allegations quickly and appropriately by adhering to those policies
  • showed that Ms McCarthy had received training and was aware of the relevant policies
  • took disciplinary action against Ms McCarthy in response to the conduct
  • took prompt steps to remove offensive posts from social media.

The Court found that when the employer became aware of the risk, it acted promptly. It investigated and removed the risk. It also punished the wrongdoer. This was despite poor notes being taken by the employer and the process being imperfect.

The lesson

The lesson from this case is the importance of having detailed and tailored policies covering workplace issues. In particular, policies about employee conduct issues – such as use of social media, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment and complaint processes – are vital. Policies should clearly set out employee expectations, what conduct is not acceptable and what employees can do if they have any concerns.

Employers need to not only have these policies, but also take steps to ensure that staff are aware of them and receive appropriate training. When complaints arise, employers need to comply with their own policies and take immediate action that focuses on removing risk but also affording procedural fairness.

How can Snedden Hall & Gallop Lawyers assist?

Our Employment Law team can assist you by assessing your internal policies to make sure that they sufficiently cover bullying in the workplace. We can also help if you need advice about allegations of harm caused to an employee by an employee. Please contact us on 02 6285 8000 or by email.