How an angry resignation letter sparked a landmark defamation case
Employers have been urged to regularly audit their workplace culture to avoid legal battles, after a woman was ordered to pay her former boss damages after circulating a scathing email.
Tracy Adams was sued for defamation over a 2009 email advising her manager that she planned to quit her job as an accounts manager at Total Fasteners, an industrial parts supplier in NSW.
“I have been absolutely guttered (sic) by your most recent attempts to bully me into leaving, and have decided to do so of my own accord,” Adams said.
Adams described her manager, Alan Bristow, as “untrustworthy and cunning by nature”, accusing him of “lying, laziness and theft”.
“I can’t understand why Total Fasteners would choose to loose (sic) a competent and reliable employee, to keep a so-called manager of questionable and dishonest character,” Adams said.
In addition to Bristow, the email was sent to the company’s human resources manager and two other company sites – including head office – before being spread among other employees.
Adams was sued for defamation by Bristow, who claimed the email resulted in him feeling “nauseated and depressed”.
The defamation case was initially thrown out last year after NSW District Court Judge Leonard Levy ruled there was no proof Bristow had suffered any actual harm to his reputation.
But in a recent judgment, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision and awarded Bristow $10,000.
Nichola Constant, director of People + Culture Strategies, specialising in people management and workplace law, says there are several points to consider with regard to this case.
“The real issue is a High Court decision which misunderstood or misinterpreted a decision by the trial judge, and the Court of Appeal thought it important enough to hear the matter,” she says.
While District Court Judge Leonard Levy ruled there was no proof Bristow’s reputation suffered any harm, the Court of Appeal found that was not the case.
“This poor lady presumably did feel bullied… She sent an email around calling her boss lying, lazy and a thief… [But] he has suffered stress and depression because of it,” Constant says.
“[Bristow] may have said to his employer, you owe me a duty of care to protect me… For an employer, they have an obligation to look after Mr Bristow as well.”
“He may have said, ‘I want you to pay my legal fees. You have to find me a good lawyer and take her on’.”
“If you have a rogue employee, perhaps that’s a step employers may be required to take. If this employee is a rogue, Total Fasteners needs to look after Mr Bristow.”
But Constant says there are things employers can do before it reaches this stage.
“In terms of lessons, in this day and age, [it is common] for people to act in haste,” she says.
“For employers, the issue is to have in place systems to raise these grievances so it doesn’t get to the point where people blow their cool.”
Constant says there are also ways to detect whether employees have issues with one another.
“There are signs – if you’ve got changes in level of performance, number of hours, a large amount of overtime or errors,” she says.
“Absenteeism is a very good pointer but turnover is probably the main one… There are signs always pointing towards a workplace culture not operating appropriately.”
“Often if there’s performance issues, there’s cultural issues. You need to do audits of this regularly.”