Clifford Gouldson Lawyers

Workplace comments: When shooting from the hip, hits your foot!

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We all know managing employees can be a difficult and sometimes hazardous time for employers and employees.   
All too often we see matters before the Fair Work Commission where an employer or HR representative has made a number of ill-advised comments that have landed them in hot water, demonstrating how fumbling their way through the managing employee process can only end badly. 
The recent allegations against the Seven Network demonstrate just how hot the water can be if matters are not handled correctly and the extraordinary comments made by Seven’s HR personnel should serve as a warning to employers to step through the management process with care in order to avoid being made a national poster star for bad employee management.
Key points
Boiling the matter down to some key points:

  • Cadet journalist for the Seven Network, Amy Taeuber, complained about being sexually harassed by an older colleague (alleging a series of incidents, including commenting on her appearance, making disparaging remarks about her marital status and calling her a lesbian);
  • Ms Taeuber was later suspended, not long after filing her complaint, on the grounds that she allegedly bullied a fellow cadet; 
  • Ms Taeuber was later required to attend a meeting where she was subsequently suspended and Ms Taeuber recorded the meeting;
  • Ms Taeuber’s support person was required to leave the room during the meeting; and 
  • It has since been revealed that the cadet whom Ms Taeuber is alleged to have bullied is actually her friend and has confirmed that she never made a complaint about Ms Taeuber to their employer.

While the fact that Ms Taeuber was denied the right to have a support person present during the meeting sets off significant warning bells, it’s the comments of the HR manager that have us shaking our heads and looking to the ceiling in disbelief.
Specifically, during the meeting, a number of key comments were made including Ms Taeuber saying:
"I feel like this is humiliating me, for making a complaint in the first place, and it's really disgusting. This is disgusting. I've done nothing wrong. I've not done any of this and I'm requesting to have the statement of the person who made these allegations."
To our absolute amazement, the HR manager, completely bypassing the comments made by a very upset Ms Taeuber, replied:
"OK, so how do we want to plan your exit, Amy? I do understand that we don't want to make it humiliating for you."
We feel a monopoly-like “don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, go straight to suspension” comment is appropriate here.
When Ms Taeuber again requested that she be provided with the statement of the person making the allegations about her, saying it is "quite fair" in order to answer the allegations, the HR manager told her to "put it in writing" and refused to engage with any further questions.
Ms Taeuber went on to say that she felt "very victimised, to be honest…I've worked too hard to get this job and I know people are just trying to get rid of me now and it's just really upsetting, I don't really deserve any of this for standing up and having a problem with someone calling me a lesbian."
Lessons for employers and HR personnel
Keeping in mind that there is no one ‘golden rule’ when it comes to how you manage an employee as it can be different in many cases, there are some simple rules you can follow in order to ensure you do not land yourself in hot water including:

  • Following a fair and reasonable process;
  • Don’t push through the process at the expense of an employee’s rights under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth);
  • Don’t unreasonably deny an employee their right to have a support person present during a meeting if they request to have one present;
  • If an employee raises concerns regarding the process adopted, you should acknowledge those concerns immediately and investigate them and adjust your process if appropriate;
  • Investigate thoroughly; 
  • Remember that management processes should not be completely rigid. They should have an element of fluidity so as to ensure you can adjust appropriately to the individual circumstances at hand;
  • Let your comments do a lap — don’t jump the gun and respond without giving consideration to what you are responding to. You do not want to run the risk that it is interpreted either out of context or incorrectly altogether.
It is important to get these types of matters right and if you have concerns regarding your employee management process or if you would like guidance or advice on how to best manage your responsibilities moving forward, do not hesitate to contact our Workplace Team who are here ready to assist.

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