A cautionary tale from the workplace
The last decade has seen an explosion in cases concerning bullying and harassment in Australian courts. A worrying trend is in the number of vexatious or false claims. When Worksafe Victoria reviewed the bullying complaints it handled during 2010-2011, it surmised that more than two-thirds were not substantiated and fewer than one per cent were serious enough to warrant possible prosecution.
Charmaine Pickett (real name changed for legal reasons) worked as a receptionist in a federal government office in Adelaide, where she was barely on speaking terms with her colleagues. Over seven years she had made bullying and harassment claims against seven fellow public servants, complaining their behaviour had left her stressed, humiliated and depressed. Her supervisors, in turn, labelled her argumentative, defiant and unhelpful.
The case snowballed into one of the most costly and gruelling battles over workplace bullying allegations ever waged in Australia. Retrenched in 2008, Pickett sued the Commonwealth for discrimination in the Federal Magistrates Court, a case that turned into a three year marathon.
In a 60,000-word judgement handed down in 2011 a Federal Magistrate rejected every one of the plaintiff’s harassment and discrimination claims and concluded that she had made exaggerated or unfounded allegations against co-workers, deliberately escalated conflict at work and used the complaints system as “an instrument of intimidation”.
None of her colleagues had given evidence in support of her, the magistrate noted, and he agreed with the findings of an independent investigator who wrote that Pickett’s behaviour had traumatised those who tried to manage her, and at times constituted bullying.
She is now planning the next move in her decade-long fight with the public service, which may have already cost the Federal Government millions of dollars.
During her time as a public servant, Pickett’s managers hired two physiotherapists, two occupational physicians, an ergonomist and an occupational health and safety consultant to assess her needs. They conducted innumerable internal inquiries and paid two independent investigators to assess her bullying and related complaints.
They referred her to counsellors, doctors and psychiatrists, and allowed her up to three months’ sick leave at various times. They fought a protracted three-year court battle that required a team of government solicitors and a barrister. The Federal Government is now trying to recoup its legal costs from Pickett – a quixotic quest, given that she currently lives on a disability pension.
Pickett has been unable to find a lawyer to launch an appeal. But she may have a solution – she’s thinking of doing a law degree. “I’m prepared to go as far as the International Court of Justice if it’s necessary, to get the right decision,” she says. “I’m not going to let it go.”
Workplace harassment and bullying legislation can actually become a weapon for disgruntled employees to harass and bully their fellow workmates and their own employer. Corporations and businesses need to invest in adequate training to protect the interests of both employees and shareholders.
(Extracted from Weekend Australian Magazine November 27-28 2011)