Australia: Performance management, alleged bullying and volatile workers

Workplace bullying remains an unfortunate reality in Australia. It is a prevalent and complex issue that can have a profound effect on a worker's health as well as their professional and personal life. Sadly, in a number of cases, workplace bullying has pushed individuals to take their own life.

For employers, the task of combating workplace bullying is made difficult by the broad range of conduct that may constitute bullying, as well as the diverse characteristics or sensitivities of individual workers. This is further complicated by an employers need to drive business objectives and effectively manage the performance, behaviour and conduct of their employees.

Although "reasonable performance management" by an employer may not constitute bullying, what is or is not "reasonable" is not clearly defined. As a consequence, the line between reasonable performance management and bullying is often blurred: a difficult distinction that is further complicated in circumstances where a volatile worker is involved. The recent findings of the Queensland Office of the State Coroner in the case of the suicide of a teacher, has put a spotlight on these issues.

Coronial inquest into the death of the teacher

The deceased was a school teacher employed by the Queensland Department of Education. On 26 June 2011, the teacher was found dead in his car on a rural property, along with a suicide note detailing his long struggle with depression, problems at work and relationship difficulties. An inquest was conducted to determine the circumstances that contributed to the teacher's death. This included consideration of his mental health and the potential impact of the employment relationship.

The teacher started as a deputy principal at a senior school in Cairns in 2008. During 2009 and 2010, the principal of the school raised performance concerns about the teacher's adherence to curriculum and line management tasks. The principal was noted by staff as having "strong and definite expectations from teachers and a strong leadership style".

Colleagues observed that the teacher subsequently felt uncomfortable at work and felt that he was unable to satisfy the principal's demands. The teacher also gave the impression he was offended, humiliated and intimidated by the principal's comments regarding his performance.

In April 2010, the teacher made enquiries about transferring to a school closer to Brisbane. The teacher wanted to be closer to family and to "move on" from the issues he had experienced at work. The teacher was told he was not eligible for a permanent transfer on the basis that he had not held his position for the requisite period detailed in departmental policy.

After this, the teacher was absent from work for long periods of time and lodged a workers' compensation claim for psychological injuries due to workplace harassment, inconsistent expectations and criticism from the principal. This claim was unsuccessful as the alleged conduct was considered "reasonable management action".

By the end of 2010, the teacher was granted a temporary transfer on compassionate grounds to a deputy principal position at a school north of Brisbane. The principal at the new school was described as "authoritative, behaviourally intimidating, very direct, brusque and with high expectations". The principal had previously been the subject of workplace harassment complaints and had been reprimanded for this conduct.

Soon after starting at the new school, the teacher was accused of minor indiscretions and was formally investigated for issues such as alleged excessive internet usage, suspected involvement in stealing chocolate fundraising money and wearing inappropriate attire (football shorts) at a school athletics carnival. The teacher denied any misconduct.

The principal met with the teacher and expressed significant concerns about the teacher's ability to attain the standards expected of a deputy principal. At this time, the teacher was experiencing personal difficulties and was concerned that a permanent appointment may have been in jeopardy. It was in this context, that the teacher committed suicide.

Findings of the coronial inquest

The Coroner found that the:

  • teacher suffered from depression and anxiety that predated his employment at both schools
  • department lacked policies or procedures for the sharing of employee information between schools. Relevantly, the new school was not made aware of the teacher's experience at Cairns and did not consider whether the transfer was appropriate in these circumstances
  • issues raised against the teacher at the new school were relatively minor and did not warrant formal reporting and investigation, and
  • teacher committed suicide due to domestic issues, difficulties in performing to the expected standard at his workplace and accusations of inappropriate conduct that were unsubstantiated or trivial.

The Coroner recommended that the department develop a policy or guideline on sharing information between schools about staff and their employment history, particularly when being considered for transfer or relocation.

Potential implications

The teacher's death has been the subject of investigation by WorkCover Queensland. In light of the inquest's findings, a prosecution may be initiated for failing to ensure the health and safety of a worker.

Unfortunately, the plight of the teacher is not an isolated occurrence. The NSW State Coroner is currently investigating the suicide of a young engineering apprentice who frequently endured verbal and physical bullying in the workplace.

These cases illustrate the importance of workplaces adopting a dynamic approach to work health and safety that appropriately responds to the needs of volatile workers. This may involve implementing policies and procedures that ensure that any issues relating to performance are explored in a pragmatic and constructive manner. Workers should also be encouraged to speak to their supervisors if they are not coping with workplace expectations or tasks.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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