Workplace bullying is an increasingly prominent issue for Australian employers to grapple with. Commonly, workers make allegations of bullying during performance management processes and may even lodge workers’ compensation claims citing work-related stress. Employers may, however, be able to escape liability for such claims in the event they can demonstrate the alleged injury occurred due to reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.
In a recent case, the High Court has clarified the connection of management action to a psychological injury suffered in the course of employment.
Case Study: Comcare v Martin  HCA 43
After moving through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court of Australia, the High Court of Australia was tasked with confirming whether or not there was a causal connection between administrative action and a psychological injury suffered by an employee of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
Ms Martin was employed by the ABC in 2010 as a producer of a local morning radio program in South Australia. Between 2010 and 2012, a toxic working relationship developed between her and a presenter on the show, which caused her a significant level of stress.
Ms Martin applied for a number of other positions within the ABC with the aim of moving away from the presenter and was largely unsuccessful until she was put into a more senior role as a cross media reporter on a temporary basis. The position was subsequently advertised for permanent appointment and Ms Martin applied in hopes that she would not have to return to the radio show that caused her anxiety. When she was informed that she had not been appointed to the positions, Ms Martin “broke down uncontrollably” and was diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder”.
The Court found that Ms Martin’s injury arose as a result of her not being appointed in the higher position for which she applied. The perceived consequences of that, being a return to working with the presenter, may have been a source of her stress, but the triggering event of her injury was a reasonable management action of simply rejecting an application for promotion.
The Court stated that it was critical to “ensure that the wide range of legitimate human resource management actions, when undertaken in a reasonable manner, do not give rise to eligibility for workers’ compensation”.
Lessons for Employers
Employers need to equip managers with skills and expertise to conduct management action in an appropriate and reasonable manner in order to ensure productive working relationships and to minimise the prospect of compensable psychological injuries.
HR Legal works with employers to develop effective management strategies and conducts management training to educate managers around reasonable management action. If you require assistance in relation to these areas, please contact us.
This article was produced by HR Legal. It is intended to provide general information only in summary format on legal issues. It does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on as such.