When a company director’s relationship with his co-director wife broke down, a female HR manager in the family business became the victim of his bullying.
The employee at Hoad Water Cartage in Adelaide applied to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for an order to stop bullying.
She told the FWC that on multiple occasions the director had communicated with her in a rude, belittling and abusive manner which made her feel personally and professionally insulted and humiliated.
The director told her on numerous occasions that “no one else would employ you” and he allowed another male colleague to continually refer to her as “that f—ing woman” in his presence.
He demeaned the employee’s working relationship with his wife, describing it as a “girlfriends club” and said “they don’t know what they are doing because they aren’t truck drivers”. He also sent the employee belittling emails which he copied a female co-worker into, an action which his wife described to the FWC as “humiliating and demeaning”.
Director hires lawyers to intimidate the employee
The director’s ongoing bullying behaviour, which began in mid-2017, culminated in his lawyers sending the employee a letter in September 2018, claiming that she was insubordinate and disputed his authority by reporting to his wife, who he called a “rogue director”.
The letter warned of dismissal “should your behaviour continue”.
“We confirm that under the organisational chart our client is Managing Director and you are to answer to him,” it concluded.
The following day the employee filed her application for an order to stop bullying.
About two months later she suffered an anxiety attack and under South Australian WorkCover laws was placed on light duties by her doctor.
Despite this, a couple of weeks after, the director sent her about 50 emails in one day, requesting her to process reimbursements for expenses. Later that afternoon she visited her doctors again and was certified unable to work for two weeks.
“Collateral damage” in the marital dispute
FWC Deputy President Peter Anderson said the “bullying conduct was serious and conducted over a prolonged period” and “was initially driven by [the male director’s] unwillingness to provide full and proper respect for [the employee’s] role and her position as a female manager”.
He described the treatment of the employee as “collateral damage in the matrimonial dispute” that the male director was indifferent to.
“It is the responsibility of adult persons who own a business, when placed in a position of personal dispute, to have sufficient presence of mind to comply with their lawful obligations including to their employees if they wish to maintain direct personal involvement in the business during that period of private turbulence,” he said.
Remorseless director banned from any further supervision
“The matrimonial dispute between [the couple] remains on foot and remains acrimonious. Both continue to work in the business. [The male director] contested this application and, apart from an apology in the witness box for describing [the employee] as a ‘side-kick’ he displayed no regret or remorse for the conduct he engaged in. He denies some of the conduct I have found to have occurred, and considers all other to have been reasonable management action. He has an unreformed view about [the employee] being part of a conspiracy against him and his business and, to date, appears indifferent to the bullying she has experienced and its impact on her,” Deputy President Anderson said.
He ordered that the male director, or anyone acting on his behalf, would not be able to discipline or terminate the employee and that only the female director would have authority to sanction her “should [her] work performance (objectively assessed) be deficient or should she engage in misconduct”.
The male director is now only allowed to communicate with the employee via email, in a “professional, respectful and business-like” manner. He has also been ordered not to denigrate or disparage the employee to any third party.
“It is regrettable that orders are made requiring adult persons to act civilly in their communication as employer to employee and as business owner to manager. Yet that is what is required in these circumstances,” Deputy President Anderson said.