Four bullying phrases at the centre of A-G harassment case

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday November 10, 2015

Differing opinions on what constitutes workplace bullying featured strongly in the report, released Tuesday, into allegations against former Victorian auditor-general John Doyle by a member of his staff.

Doyle’s resignation in September cut short the question of whether Parliament should remove him from office. The two-month investigation also covered a sexual harassment complaint from the same staff member.

Ken Hayne, a retired High Court of Australia judge, was brought in to conduct the investigation and found both complaints against Doyle convincing.

It’s not often a retired judge of Hayne’s experience is brought in to handle a workplace bullying matter, so his picking apart of the behaviours is likely to be studied by HR professionals.

Four key bullying phrases were cited by the complainant as being particularly traumatising for her, as well as the way she was treated in meetings. Hayne reports that repeated use of these phrases was mentioned by witnesses on other occasions too.

In his interviews with Hayne, Doyle emphasised that no one had expressed any concern about his behaviour in any meeting until the complainant lodged her grievance. Others noticed though, including his deputy and now acting auditor-general Dr Peter Frost.

Hayne describes Doyle’s answer to the bullying allegations as that he did no more than take reasonable management action in a reasonable manner, and that “obviously a subordinate may find reproof or correction very uncomfortable”.

Reasonable corrective measures or unreasonable workplace bullying? Hayne concluded the latter.

1. ‘That was a rhetorical question’

The complainant says she was subjected to rants at long meetings with Doyle. In her first interview, she explained:

“It’s not a conversation, it’s not John speaking, making statements or asking me questions and then giving me an opportunity to respond, it’s a monologue, it’s me coming in, sitting down and him just yelling at me and I’m never given the opportunity to respond. ‘I don’t want to hear that, that was a rhetorical question.’ I used to hear that one a lot: ‘That was a rhetorical question’.”

Doyle described those meetings as occasions where he was asking direct and pressing questions, and later in written submissions emphasised that the behaviour was “confined”.

2. Putting people ‘on notice’

The grievance alleges that Doyle told the complainant to inform the manager of the People and Culture Group and the rest of them that “they are all on notice”. Frost describes the incident in only slightly different language, “they were more or less on notice”.

Doyle denies the attribution in his submission. Hayne did not accept that Doyle might not be aware of what “on notice” means, and accepted that the complainant rightly understood that the language constituted a threat to staff for whom she was responsible, and thus a threat to her, of unspecified but serious adverse consequences.

3. ‘You’ll need a box of tissues’

The complaint also alleges Doyle began a meeting by saying “You’ll need a box of tissues for this”. There was conflicting accounts in the complainants grievance about what that meeting was about, either written job descriptions or a later meeting about resource planning and the VAGO budget. Witnesses concurred that it was said, but Frost says Doyle used the expression in a jocular way. Another witness says she heard the expression before and thought nothing of it.

Doyle also denies using that expression at either meeting. With differing views of its intent, Hayne took context into account:

“Given that the complainant had already been reduced to tears in an earlier meeting with Mr Doyle, the statement was one which the complainant could, and I did find, take as threatening. Mr Doyle may have used this phrase in a jocular way on other occasions and in other circumstances. This was not such an occasion, and, given what had happened before, these were not circumstances in which the statement could or would have been understood as a joke.”

4. ‘Be careful when I’m polite’

The complainant says Doyle told her in a meeting “now [name], you’re lucky I’m not being polite, because if I get polite you know what that means”. If he is yelling and ranting, that’s a good thing, she says he had told staff in the past. The use of the expression was backed up by other staff members.

Hayne writes of one witness:

“She told me that from her desk (located ‘around the corner and down the hallway’ from Mr Doyle’s office), she had heard Mr Doyle ‘yelling’ at the complainant for about 20 minutes, that she heard him ‘yelling’, ‘How many times do I have to ask for these?’ and that she heard him then say ‘I’m going to get nice and you know what that means’.”

Doyle denies this also, though acknowledged that he had told staff that he goes quiet when annoyed but had not said that for some time.

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