The interrogation came out of the blue and continued mercilessly, even while she was doubled over sobbing.
The woman, who was 41 at the time of the incident, has been awarded more than $1 million in a negotiated workplace bullying settlement.
Australia’s million dollar workplace bullying payout
The lawyer of a woman who was the victim of workplace bullying explains the details of the million dollar case.
The bullying she experienced at a NSW government agency five years ago has rendered her unable to ever work again.
As two bosses hurled accusations at her during a meeting called to provide her with feedback on an internal job application, the woman who could only speak on the condition of anonymity, said she was in shock and disbelief.
Young workers in Canberra have reported being bullied or harassed.s
Now aged 46, she still has no idea what motivated the attack which had come without any warning. A string of psychiatrists have provided evidence that her mental injury has rendered her unable to return to work.
“I can never get those five years back. I can’t do what I used to do,” she said.
“My career was going well. The agency had just paid for me to do a public service management course. I thought I was earmarked for senior management and then this happened.”
The woman’s lawyer, Lucinda Gunning from Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers in Sydney, said the more than $1 million payout was made up of two components – one for total and permanent disablement, which was paid out by a private insurer, and a workers compensation payment, for past and future earning capacity.
Lucinda Gunning from Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers says the $1m payout is the highest sum she has seen paid for a workplace bullying claim. Photo: Ryan Stuart
“In my experience, this is the highest sum that I have seen paid for a workplace bullying claim,” she said.
Like many cases of workplace bullying, the circumstances at first glance appear trivial.
The woman who worked in middle management had made an error in an internal application for another job within her state government agency. She had accidentally duplicated an answer to one question in response to another. She says she accepted the error had effectively invalidated the application.
However, her bosses insisted on meeting to provide feedback despite her saying it was unnecessary because she understood her error.
I can never walk into a room with two people in an interview again because of the way they dealt with me.
When she sat down with a male and female supervisor, they accused her of having an inappropriate relationship in the office and of passing off a colleague’s ideas as her own, which she flatly denies.
“I was blindsided by it. I couldn’t understand where the allegations were coming from,” she says.
"Had they given me some sort of notice or asked me in a less hostile environment, I could explain it. It was just incorrect. But they just kept going and going.
"I was sobbing and doubled over and they were still making allegations about information sharing.
"It just didn’t stop. At one point they said we can put you in contact with the counselling service.
“I said I will absolutely need it after this meeting and still they went on. I don’t know why I didn’t walk out. It went on for ages.”
When the meeting was finally over, the public servant went on annual leave.
When she returned to work, she was forced to work with one of the supervisors who had bullied her in the meeting.
“I asked to be moved out of that department. But they felt the need to humiliate me further by sitting me outside their office and the team I used to manage,” she said.
"I wasn’t allowed to contribute.
"I couldn’t breath in there. I felt so useless.
"It got to the point where I would sit in the bathroom for six hours and no one would notice I was there.
“I didn’t do any work because I couldn’t.”
The woman, who described herself as a resilient person before the experience with bullying, was sent to a mediation session with the female supervisor.
“The woman attacked me again to the point where the mediator told her to stop. It was horrible,” she said.
"She said I had given another industry representative information about a meeting for stakeholders. But they had sent out a notice of the meeting. It was ridiculous. There was a clear explanation for how someone I was accused of telling found out about the meeting.
"I was trying to explain it to them, but they wouldn’t listen.
"The woman accused me of trying to take credit for someone else’s work in my job application. I said I wasn’t taking credit, I had delegated the work and I was her boss.
"The tone of the meeting could have been very different. They could have just said: ‘Could you just please go through this with me’.
"But they were only interested in attacking me.
“As a result they changed my life. I did not leave that office the same person I was when I arrived.”
By May, 2012, the woman left the organisation feeling “hopeless”.
Every time she entered a lift she would look to the ground to see if she could identify the shoes of her supervisors.
“I was terrified. I couldn’t be near them,” she said.
The woman’s complaints were initially investigated in house in what she describes as an unfair process.
It took five years to finalise her claim during which insurance companies put her and her children under surveillance.
“This is a psychological injury, not a physical one,” she said.
“Everything was challenged. I was pushed to the absolute limit. I’m surprised I’m actually still here.”
After five years of “hell”, the woman said she had hoped to feel better now the pressure is off.
“But I still don’t,” she said.
“I can never get those five years back. I can’t do what I used to do.”
Maybe for only one incident. Bring it on, Stryker can you bully me please.