Slow to act employer pays heavy price

Swan v Monash Law Book Co-operative [2013] VSC 326 (26 June 2013)

When an employee complained to her employer about bullying, but asked the employer to refrain from acting at that time, the employer fell into an error from which it could not extricate itself, according to a Victorian Supreme Court ruling.

The manager harassed the employee as she worked, continually sniping at her work rate and quality. The manager also threw things, yelled, swore and generally was unpleasant. The employee complained but asked her employer to “sit on it at this stage” as the employee believed she could cope. The employer acquiesced to this and that was its fatal mistake.

The Court found that the employer had a responsibility to act and regardless of the employee’s request, it should have acted. This raises a very serious issue for most employers.

It is unremarkable that a person will complain but nevertheless ask that nothing be done – adults generally don’t like to make a fuss.

But the $600,000 damages awarded in this case ought to concern most employers, and the lesson must be to act, to accept the responsibility and refuse to accede to a request from employees who are being bullied in a case like this to ‘wait and see’.

The issue here is one of management; the employer and not the employee is in control of the situation so the employer must act, and not take their riding instructions on matters like bullying and harassment from employees.

When an employee complains about another employee’s behaviour, the employer must tell them there and then, either they are making a formal complaint or there is no complaint, there can not be any half measures.