Women’s clothing retailer Sussan has been ordered to pay $237,000 by the Supreme Court of Queensland after the retailer failed to follow its own bullying policy.
Gabrielle Keegan, a former assistant manager at Sussan, claimed $1.2 million in damages after she alleged that she suffered a major psychiatric injury over 11 days due to bullying and harassment by her new manager.
Keegan claimed when she returned from a period of parental leave her manager, Diana Clarke, left her out of business management matters, spoke aggressively to her, including during a confrontation about a mop, and gave unwarranted criticism about various matters including the state of the store.
Keegan phoned Sussan’s Queensland business manager, Jayne Makarein, in tears but after listening to her complaint Keegan claimed Makarein told her to “put some lippy on and go home to [her] bub”.
Makarein told Clarke about the allegations and told her to be “more mindful” about how she dealt with Keegan in the future.
She also told Keegan she had to “work it out for herself”.
Makarein did not follow Sussan’s bullying and harassment policy, which required that complaints be taken seriously, treated confidentially and investigated.
Sussan denied liability for Keegan’s psychiatric injury and argued that her injury was extraordinary and unforeseeable given Clarke’s “essentially unremarkable behaviour”.
But the court found Makarein’s “patronising advice” and method of dealing with the issue clearly indicated that she did not take the bullying complaint seriously.
It found Sussan was responsible for Makarein and Clarke’s actions and awarded Keegan $237,000.
SmartCompany spoke to legal experts Hedy Cray, a partner at law firm Clayton Utz, and Ross Lee, principal of the law firm Lee Lawyers, who both say having a bullying policy is not enough.
“No matter how trivial it may appear, you must take bullying complaints seriously,” Cray says.
She says the case reinforces the importance of supporting mangers and support can come in different ways.
“Firstly, regarding the managers own conduct and behavior,” Cray says.
“Second is how to respond and investigate complaints. A response extends not only to the outcome to a finding of unreasonable or unacceptable behavior but the empathy and support that is given to a complainant without predetermination of an outcome.”
WorkCover figures indicate success rates for these types of bullying claims are very low, but Lee says “when they succeed they succeed in a big way”.
“If they do succeed and the person does in fact show a persistent trait of not being able to go back to work and not being able to heal themselves for six or 12 months, ongoing, the claim can be very sizeable,” he says.
Lee says SMEs need to have systems in place to care for and protect employees and this includes a bullying policy.
“Like any system, it’s all very well to have the manual on the shelf gathering dust, but it’s really not going to impress the judge,” he says.
“I think this case is a good reminder for people to check they have appropriate workers’ compensation insurance and, secondly, that they have good policies and, thirdly, that they carry them out.”
SmartCompany contacted Sussan for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.