ATO worker loses compensation bid after being reprimanded for long breaks to search for organic coffee and soy milk

ATO worker loses compensation bid after being reprimanded for long breaks to search for organic coffee and soy milk

A Canberra public servant has lost their bid for workplace compensation, with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruling the employee’s supervisor acted reasonably in response to suggestions she deserved longer breaks to find a café that served organic coffee and soy milk.

The public servant applied for compensation from government workplace insurer Comcare in January 2013 after suffering from a stress-related “adjustment disorder”, which she said was the result of a number of administrative actions by her supervisor.

Along with her searches to find the right coffee, the public servant had told her supervisor discrepancies in her time sheets could be explained by using the stairs for exercise, comforting a friend, having an inter-state login to the time management system which caused delays in her office hours being recorded and studying for her MBA in the ATO foyer.

The supervisor met with the public servant on multiple occasions and was given permission by the ATO human resources division to provide her with a formal warning about her inability to meet the organisation’s time management requirements.

But the public servant claimed her supervisor used her position to “intimidate and scrutinise her work and career” and as a result of the issues relating to time management, unsuccessful requests for study leave and a dispute over the feedback provided through the public servant’s performance review, her supervisor was responsible for her developing an adjustment disorder.

Comcare dismissed the claims in January 2013 and upheld the decision on appeal in April 2013.

The public servant took her appeal to the tribunal in June 2013 but in July this year the tribunal ruled the ATO and her supervisor acted reasonably.

“The tribunal accepts this was a case in which there was a breakdown of the relationship between a supervisor and an employee and that this adversely affected the level of trust between the two and led to a considerable amount of hostile action by both parties,” said tribunal member Robin Creyke.

“Nevertheless, the evidence does not support the multiple claims that the administrative actions as a result of which [the public servant] suffered an adjustment disorder, were unreasonable or taken in a reasonable manner.”

“The actions were minuted extensively, they were taken following appropriate advice, and only in the face of continuing conduct by [the public servant] which did not accord with ATO policies.”

The public servant is currently working in another division of the ATO and an ATO spokesperson told SmartCompany the Tax Office does not have anything further to add to the tribunal’s findings.

Andrew Douglas, partner at M+K Lawyers, told SmartCompany the test applied in stress-related claims for workplace compensation is the same as the test applied in bullying cases: whether the organisation acted reasonably in the way it managed the claim and whether its actions were themselves reasonable.

“What this court held, and what other courts have held, is that if you are treated reasonably and the decisions taken by the organisation is reasonable in themselves, it wouldn’t matter if you had a psychotic breakdown,” says Douglas.

“The lessons for business are, when you are dealing with a challenging person, step away from the conflict, treat them the best you can, and ensure you objectively follow your processes on all occasions.”

“If you do that, three things will happen. One, the likelihood of the issue escalating to a compensation claim is reduced. Two, if it is elevated to a compensation claim it will be rejected. And three, if they make a bullying claim, you have a complete defence.”

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