A Tasmanian employee of Australian Tax Office has failed in her bid for compensation from workplace insurer Comcare after the Administrative Appeals Tribunal rejected claims her colleagues bullied her for being a “mainland outsider”.
Naomi Lindoy had been employed as a lawyer by the ATO since 1995 when she requested a transfer from Canberra to Hobart for compassionate reasons in 2008. She had been treated for anxiety and depression since the late 1990s and her mental health concerns were known to her employer.
In 2009, Lindoy suffered what she described as “a major meltdown” after an interview for a promotion, which prompted her to take a significant amount of time off work throughout 2009. At the time, she attributed her health problems to non-work factors, including members of her family contracting swine flu and financial troubles.
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But in December 2010 during a medical examination to determine if she was able to continue to work, Lindoy said she had been treated unfairly in a ‘hostile’ work environment in Hobart since February 2009.
Lindoy said she was “treated as a mainland outsider that could not be any good because of the person who had taken her on transfer” and she “did not feel welcome or accepted”.
She said was also exposed to “innuendo, gossip, team members complaining about each other and management” and her colleagues “were ganging up” on her because she had taken on a more senior position in the office.
But the tribunal also heard from Lindoy’s colleagues, who said the Hobart office was “a harmonious one, devoid of gossip and exclusion and with a good culture”.
“There was no evidence, other than Ms Lindoy’s, that indicated that Ms Lindoy was treated unfairly or unduly harshly by her colleagues or her supervisors in the ATO, not that the culture she described existed in the Hobart ATO was unusual or hostile,” said Tribunal member R Walters.
TressCox employment, industrial relations and workplace safety solicitor Edmund Burke told SmartCompany Lindoy was faced with the challenge of both proving her illness was aggravated by her employment and that there was a hostile environment in the Hobart office, and she was unsuccessful on both accounts.
Burke says the case highlights that disclosing a pre-existing illness can be beneficial for both employees and employers.
In the case of psychological or psychiatric illnesses, Burke says employers must also be aware that the perception of a workplace environment can be as important as the reality. But that doesn’t mean employers do not have protection under the law.
“Under WorkCover provisions there is what is called a reasonable management action,” Burke says.
“So for a psychiatric illness, if an employer can show they took a reasonable management action, it can protect them.”
“The principle of reasonable management is quite broad and it is not onerous on employers, they just need to deal with employees in a fair way and regardless of perception, if their action is reasonable, they will be protected.”
The ATO declined to comment on the case when contacted by SmartCompany.