Canterbury employer pays $14K to bullied employee

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A Christchurch social worker has been awarded $14,000 compensation after allegedly being made a victim of bullying by her Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) manager.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found that the CDHB failed to respond appropriately to Mary-Anne Beckingsale’s complaints about her team leader’s behaviour.

Beckingsale alleged that the manager, Keryn Burroughs, subjected her to “16 months of systematic targeting, bullying and undermining”, prompting her to seek “humiliation compensation”.

In her letter of resignation, Beckingsale said she felt “vulnerable and intimidated at work”, and claimed that she had no options left other than resignation.

The CDHB denied that it had acted inappropriately because Beckingsale resigned without making a formal complaint, which left the organisation unable to investigate and resolve any ongoing concerns.

It was heard in court that Burroughs’ appointment “was not universally popular with staff that reported to her”, with many believing that she lacked the experience necessary to lead them.

However, the issues began between Burroughs and Beckingsale when the latter was told that she was a casual employee, and the company did not intend to engage casual workers in the future.

Upon requesting annual leave, Beckingsale was told she was not guaranteed any minimum hours because of her casual status, which meant she was not accruing any paid leave.

Following this, there were a series of incidents involving Burroughs that left Beckingsale upset at work.

When Beckingsale emailed her resignation with immediate effect, the reason she gave was that Burroughs had destroyed a “very solid and good team of social workers”, and “I will not watch people I have huge respect for, myself included, be demoralised”.

Burroughs then called Beckingsale to her office, where she was told that her resignation would not be accepted.

The ERA heard that when Beckingsale attempted to leave, the team leader blocked her exit.

Beckingsale claimed that when she left later, Burroughs confronted her and attempted to block her exit once more.

Burroughs claimed that she had been trying to hear Beckingsale’s perspective on the resignation.

The CDHB subsequently appointed Beckingsale to a new role in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, but the relationship worsened and Beckingsale raised concerns about having one-on-one interactions with Burroughs, claiming that she felt unsafe doing so.

It was then that the CDHB made its critical mistake: rather than initiating an investigation, senior managers told Beckingsale that her refusal to meet with Burroughs was unhelpful, and the bullying allegations were hurtful.

The ERA ruled that the CDHB should have regarded the concerns as a formal complaint, which should have prompted an investigation.

It was also found that Burroughs had a “dogged” approach to management, which was experienced as bullying by Beckingsale.

The CDHB had a responsibility to any employee in this situation to eliminate or reduce the workplace stress that it sparked.

While offers of counselling were reasonable, the employer had failed to address the root cause of the stress: the bullying from the team leader.

The ERA also found that although it was unlikely Burroughs intended to bully or intimidate her subordinate, she was ill-equipped to respond to staff members who disagreed to her due to her managerial inexperience.

“The CDHB failed both Ms Beckingsale and Ms Burroughs … when it failed to recognise that its efforts of facilitated meetings, a team building day and a bullying in the workplace workshop that only Burroughs attended had been insufficient to resolve the problem,” the ERA concluded.
  • Peter Moore on 18/11/2015 6:03:32 p.m.

    I was the Employment Advocate for Mary-Anne Beckingsale. I think the last paragraph of this article more or less hits the nail on the head. The problem was that the employer took the side of the "team leader" without ever systematically investigating what, exactly, was going on. Had they investigated (particularly, as the Authority Member suggested, with a completely external investigator -- not just someone from HR who normally works in a different branch of the organisation) they would have discovered that this was not merely a "personality clash" or a "rabble rousing" employee (as they seemingly thought of Ms Beckingsale). Rather, there was deep-seated and widespread disaffection amongst a previously solid, high-performing team of about 10 social workers. Many of these social workers perceived their new team leader as a bully. Many of them had very specific and detailed complaints. But these concerns and complaints were never seemingly given serious consideration by senior management, as senior management seemingly accepted middle management's explanation that it was those who complained that were the problem, rather than the person that they complained of (who was, of course, the middle manager -- the team leader).

    Nor is this just about employee morale for its own sake. Historically, that social work team had had attrition of roughly 1 employee per year. In the months during and immediately after these problems, the majority of the team resigned or transferred.

    From an HR point of view, this strikes me as a preventable disaster; one that could have been avoided had senior management not automatically sided with middle management when there were problems between middle management (ie the team leader) and front line workers (the social workers).

    I have been told by a number of people that it is CDHB culture for management to circle round when one of "their own" gets criticized or attacked. No doubt that is, at times, an appropriate thing for them to do.

    But in this case, that response was disastrous for all involved.

    Incidentally, the last paragraph of this article also rightly highlights another very important lesson for HR professionals: that the "tick box" approach to addressing festering problems is not always sufficient.

    It was not enough that the organisation had taken the "usual steps" of a workshop, a team building day, etc. The problem still existed after these steps were taken, and the CDHB knew that. So they could not wash their hands of the problem and say, "it's ok, we did our bit, we organised a workshop, so we tried."

    Since all of this happened (2011-2013), I understand that there has been a major shakeup of CDHB HR. I don't know the details of this "shakeup", but I am cautiously optimistic that it augurs well for the future.

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