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Tribunal upholds sacking of bureaucrat for false bullying claim

The Australian Public Service has the right to sack bureaucrats who make false bullying claims against their bosses, the Fair Work Commission has found.

The commission has thrown out an unfair dismissal claim by a north Queensland Environment Department employee, who was fired after trying to frame his supervisor as a bully and plotting with a colleague to ''play the indigenous card'' to entrap him.

The case could have repercussions across the public service, which faces a rising tide of bullying complaints and a growing workers' compensation bill for psychological injuries.

Do you know more? Send your confidential tips to ps@canberratimes.com.au.

John Hunter, an executive level 1 officer with the department's indigenous land management program, was sacked in May for multiple breaches of the public service code of conduct in his ''vexatious'' and ''deceptive'' pursuit of his boss, Neil Bensley.

The commission found Mr Hunter began complaining of threatening behaviour by Mr Bensley after the manager asked his subordinate to improve his performance and attendance at work.

The department also alleged, while sacking Mr Hunter, that he made a false claim for workers' compensation for a psychological injury as a result of the alleged bullying.

But the commission made no finding on that aspect of the case, noting it was before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The trouble started in August 2011 when Mr Bensley, who previously worked alongside Mr Hunter, was promoted to executive level 2 and began to insist that Mr Hunter improve his performance.

By the following May, Mr Hunter had compiled a ''grievance document'' running to 100 pages against his boss and set in train the official process to have Mr Bensley investigated under the code of conduct.

But after a long process, the department's professional standards section found Mr Hunter's allegations to be false and vexatious and a counter-investigation resulted in his sacking in May 2013.

In his appeal to the commission, Mr Hunter claimed the Environment Department had not proved its allegations against him, that its inquiries were flawed and that his ''unblemished'' record had been ignored.

He also complained that he had not been allowed to use witness statements from two colleagues, including one who had also been sacked for misconduct, who would also allege bullying by Mr Bensley.

But commissioner Paula Spencer rejected those arguments and found Mr Hunter and his two colleagues had colluded to have their boss removed from his job.

The most damning evidence of efforts to ''entrap'' Mr Bensley was an email from Mr Hunter to co-worker Dave Thompson, who was also sacked.

''It's deadly, now we can really play the Indigenous card bros,'' Mr Hunter wrote. ''LOLs … put on your seat belt cos we going for a ride lol.''

Ms Spencer found Mr Hunter's allegations were without merit, that the personality clash between the two did not justify the ''fabricated'' bullying allegations, and the Environment Department was justified in sacking its employees.

27 comments

  • Hardly seems unreasonable that those who make up lies shouldn't be punished. Wastes valuable time, creates difficulties for the accused and most importantly puts a cloud over anyone who has a genuine grievance.

    Commenter
    Boy who cried wolf
    Date and time
    December 13, 2013, 7:00AM
    • Experienced this first hand.

      Took a job in the public sector a few year ago. Had an employee that had multiple complaints against him. He was under performing in his role, failed to meet any deadlines, came in late and left early.

      I pulled him aside to explain his actions are noticed and he needs to improve. It wasn't even an official warning or anything. I wanted to make him aware of his actions and the possible consequences. He got aggressive and stormed off. Next day he contacted HR and said I was bullying him. HR opened an official investigation, found I wasn't at fault but I was no longer allowed to talk to him despite still having him in my team.

      Just means you can do jack all and if anyone tries to do anything, you just scream the magic words "bullying" and your boss is automatically in trouble and getting investigated.

      Commenter
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 13, 2013, 11:31AM
    • I have seen the same thing many a time. Best thing I ever did was get out of the public service. In one case I saw a lady who refused to do her job, which was admin officer. When asked to start actually sitting at her desk and taking calls, she went out on stress leave and lodged a bullying complaint. End result, she started coming to work again after a few months and back to her old ways, late, long lunch, no work. Someone else had to be hired to do her role.

      Another my incompetent manager used to use my work and put his name on it. What is funny is that he was so incompetent in his previously role he was promoted to mange me, a person who was successful. He actually admitted to bullying me in a meeting and asked why i had not punched him or resigned. When I made a complaint, his manager said "but he doesn't do that to me". Queensland Government at its best. I left, that department, it ended up $300k in the hole due to the incompetent guy making bad decisions, but of course that never came to light.

      Long story short, if you don't do any work, you will do better than if you do. Wait... what?

      Commenter
      George
      Location
      SEQ
      Date and time
      December 13, 2013, 12:00PM
    • Of course it's not unreasonable. Vexatious claims of bullying are in and of themselves a form of bullying. The sacked employee indulged in exactly what he was claiming was being done to him. He deserves his fate.

      Commenter
      eyeroll
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 13, 2013, 2:44PM
    • Seems like a common story. I've been on the receiving end of this as well. A member of my team was a notorious prima donna and wouldn't be told what to do or how to do it, particularly by someone 20 years younger. After he failed to complete several tasks as requested (and very clearly documented), I finally pulled him up on it. Net result? He screamed bullying and ended up making my life very difficult, although nothing was ever proven. Senior management didn't have the willpower to back me up and instead seemed terrified that this guy would sue them. Eventually I got sick of it and resigned, as he continued to attack me and accuse me of bullying. Last thing I heard he was causing havoc for the same manager who didn't back me up.. unfortunately it seems that mud sticks, the current system makes it too easy for guys like this to get away with it.

      Commenter
      Kiz
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 13, 2013, 3:03PM
  • "... a growing workers' compensation bill for psychological injuries". Can you please cite a source for this assertion.

    Commenter
    Skankrat
    Date and time
    December 13, 2013, 8:25AM
    • Do you think there is not a growing workers' compensation bill for psychological injuries?

      Commenter
      Ghoti
      Date and time
      December 13, 2013, 12:45PM
  • Commonsense prevails.

    Commenter
    zzREXzz
    Date and time
    December 13, 2013, 8:38AM
    • Finally some common sense.
      Now if we can just get rid of most of these imbecilic stress leave claims, we will be progressing.

      Commenter
      PB
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 13, 2013, 8:45AM
      • No, wrong PB your post may have had some credibility if you had written "Now if we can just get rid of some of these imbecilic stress leave claims, we will be progressing.

        Commenter
        RTP
        Location
        Sawtell
        Date and time
        December 13, 2013, 10:25AM

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