Where can workplace bullying and harassment lead? What impacts can it have on not only the victim, but on the employer and the workplace?
These matters were recently examined in the Supreme Court of Victoria decision in Mathews.
The worker was employed by the employer for a period of almost two years. During the course of her employment, the worker was allegedly subjected to offensive, abusive and sexually explicit remarks from various co-workers and sub-contractors.
The worker claimed that in the course of her employment she had been grabbed by the bottom and the hips, was subjected to a co-worker simulating a sexual act on her, was called ‘useless’, and a ‘bimbo’, was subjected to inappropriate comments about her body, and was propositioned for sexual intercourse.
It was alleged that complaints by the worker to her supervisor were not taken seriously, with him laughing in response. Despite a complaint to her supervisor’s manager resulting in the worker being moved to a new work site, she was inexplicably returned to her original site months later.
Among further incidents, the worker claimed that she ceased work after being told by a co-worker that he would ‘follow (her) home, rip (her) clothes off and rape (her)’.
It was found that as a result of these incidents the worker had “ … suffered chronic and significant psychiatric injuries that have and will continue to diminish the quality of her life”.
It was claimed the employer was vicariously liable for the acts allegedly perpetrated on the worker, or alternatively, that it was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment.
Five days into the hearing, the employer admitted negligence, leaving only the quantum of damages to be assessed.
The worker was ultimately awarded damages amounting to $1,360,027.
This case demonstrates the extent of remedies that can be awarded with respect to workplace injuries, and more particularly the extent of injury and loss that can arise from bullying and harassment in the workplace.
The case also acts as an example for why prudent employers should have education, policies and systems in place dealing with appropriate workplace behaviour, and complaints brought by workers.