A federal tribunal has ruled that public service managers can use ''robustness'' with their workers without being labelled bullies.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has dismissed a claim for workers' compensation from a Human Services bureaucrat who claimed that one meeting with his boss left him with a psychiatric condition. The case has implications across the service, which is facing a rising tide of workers compensations claims, much of it related to mental stress.
John Findlay, a manager in the Department of Human Services in Melbourne, tried to win compensation for ''adjustment disorder'' he claimed he developed after a meeting in November 2011 with his boss, Matthew Clarke.
When his claim was rejected by federal workplace insurer Comcare, the 30-year public service veteran appealed to the tribunal, with the case going to a full hearing earlier this month.
Mr Findlay, a team leader in the Child Support Agency's Dandenong office, alleged his supervisor launched a ''vicious sustained attack'' when the two men sat down to discuss serious problems in Mr Findlay's 14-strong team.
''Matt's non-verbal expression was particularly intimidating to me,'' Mr Findlay told the tribunal. ''He leant forward when making some strong assertions and at times his face was red and also a shade of purple.
''He spoke at me and consistently raised his voice. I felt he was attempting to provoke me."
But Mr Clarke gave a different account, saying he tried to talk to Mr Findlay about the problems in his team, which included a worker threatening suicide.
''John became agitated, disputed what I was saying and asked for examples,'' Mr Clarke said in his statement.
''John said that he thought we were ganging up on him.
''He said that he felt ambushed and didn't know what it was all about.''
When Mr Findlay tried to leave the meeting, he was ordered to stay.
In the wake of the meeting, which ended without resolution, Mr Findlay went to his GP and was diagnosed with ''situational anxiety''.
Three months later Mr Findlay obtained a psychologist's report stating he was suffering ''adjustment disorder with mild depression and mild stress secondary to traumatic work-related situation late 2011'' and that ''the stressor'' was bullying at work by his manager.
But Comcare refused to pay out the claim, saying that Mr Clarke's actions had been ''reasonable administrative action'', had been done in a reasonable fashion and, in a decision handed down on Friday, Tribunal senior member James Constance backed the insurer's decision.
''I am satisfied that the events which took place required prompt action to address what was clearly an unsatisfactory workplace situation,'' Mr Constance wrote.
''This was a meeting between two experienced public servants, one of whom was the immediate supervisor of the other.
''At the time Mr Findlay was 46 years old and had approximately 28 years' experience in the public service.
''It is reasonable to expect that there would have been some tension between the two individuals concerned and that at times voices would have been raised.
''Even if there was a degree of robustness in the conversation, on the facts I have found there was nothing in the conduct of the meeting itself which indicated that the action taken was taken in other than a reasonable manner.''