'Odd, obsessive conduct': Coles manager sacked for harassing young women

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'Odd, obsessive conduct': Coles manager sacked for harassing young women

A Coles manager who harassed and touched young female employees was justifiably sacked, the Fair Work Commission has ruled.

A Coles manager who harassed and touched young female employees was justifiably sacked, the Fair Work Commission has ruled.

Commissioner Jennifer Hunt said the manager "as a mature gentlemen... should have, or ought to have, known that his conduct amongst young, female employees, some still at school, needed to be appropriate".

Background


Peter Angelakos started work with Coles Supermarkets in August 2009. At the time of his dismissal in March 2018 he was a duty manager at Coles supermarket in Moranbah, Queensland. 

Mr Angelakos, 52, was sacked following an investigation prompted by complaints by young female employees. The women, aged 17 and 23, alleged that Mr Angelakos had acted inappropriately towards them. 

In the course of the investigation, two more female employees of school age made allegations that Mr Angelakos had behaved inappropriately towards them. A further four employees came forward and a total of 39 allegations were made.

Mr Angelakos was subsequently sacked for serious misconduct and for breaching the Coles Code of Conduct and the Equal Opportunity and Appropriate Workplace Behaviour Policy (EO policy).

The complaints 


The commission heard a raft of complaints about workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

Staff member AB said Mr Angelakos had on several occasions invaded her personal space by holding his hands above her shoulders, touching her upper arms and shoulders, made inappropriate comments to her about her appearance, and had made her feel uncomfortable by being inappropiately close to her.

The 17-year-old said Mr Angelakos had also whispered 'good evening' in her ear while placing his hand on the small of her back.

Ms CD claimed Mr Angelakos harassed her and made her feel uncomfortable by standing inappropriately close to her, bringing her flowers on her first day of work, encouraging her to connect with him on social media and commenting on her appearance.

He allegedly told CD: 'your tattoos are very pretty', 'your piercings are very pretty' and 'you are looking really nice today'.

She also alleged he had made her feel uncomfortable by refusing to move out of her way when she tried to exit a dairy cold room, and by becoming disproportionately angry after she misplaced store equipment.

The commission also heard complaints of bullying and victimisation, including from a Ms K. She said that Mr Angelakos told her 'Be careful next time you think to complain about me' after she raised an issue.

Serious breaches


Commissioner Hunt noted the most serious breach of the code of conduct and EO policy related to Mr Angelakos’ conduct to AB, a school-age employee.

She said this inappropriate conduct escalated after the store manager, Mr Holloway, left the business and there was no store manager for a week.

The commission said Mr Angelakos had 'tested the water' with AB by touching her inappropriately and unnecessarily on the small of her back for a period of approximately five seconds. 

"This made her feel uncomfortable, and the defence of there being somewhat limited room in the service desk area is not accepted, especially as he never had reason to touch older, larger employees in the small of their back to manoeuvre around the space. I consider that Mr Angelakos took the opportunity of being without a store manager to engage in this conduct.

"Having escaped challenge, he repeated the action three times the following day. There is no satisfactory explanation Mr Angelakos can provide for this conduct, other than he expected if AB was upset, she should have told him so."

Regarding the numerous times Mr Angelakos said 'good evening' to AB on the same day, Commission Hunt said it was "pestering and unnecessary to approach AB again, while leaning toward her ear to say it again. I accept that it occurred, and consider it to be odd, obsessive conduct".

The commissioner said that AB 'quite rightly' informed her parents and they encouraged her to speak to a manager, which she did. 

"Noting that the ‘#metoo’ movement commenced gaining traction in late 2017, it was brave and entirely appropriate for AB to come forward with her allegations and allow them to investigated. Of course victims of workplace sexual harassment of both sexes have come forward with allegations for scores of years, but in the year 2018, the encouragement to do so, and facilitation of inquiry was there, at least in this workplace," she said.

Commissioner Hunt also addressed Ms CD's allegations, saying: "Mr Angelakos’ initial interest in CD’s attractiveness... bordering on, in my view, an obsession also was unacceptable... In the extremely short time he worked with CD, it wasn’t just CD who was uncomfortable; many of the staff formed the impression that he was unnecessarily close to CD or spent too much time with her."

She conceded that: "It could be said that Mr Angelakos tried hard, perhaps too hard, to engage on a social level with some employees. I do not consider that it was always based on his feelings of attraction to some employees; he appeared to me to be an older man with a reasonable amount of responsibility, spending his afternoons and nights at Coles trying to appear to his employees to be fun."

Another of the most serious breaches was the victimisation of Ms K.

The commissioner said it was "intolerable for a senior manager to make threats towards an employee for making a complaint about them. In my view, Mr Angelakos engaged in inappropriate behaviour towards employees who challenged him, or he felt made him look like he was not doing his job well."

Decision


The commissioner was satisfied that many of the breaches constituted a valid reason for dismissal, although some were not as significant as others.

"However, where Mr Angelakos breached the EO Policy with respect to touching AB on 27 and 28 January 2018, and where he breached the EO Policy in victimising Ms K, these alone are valid reasons for the dismissal... I do not consider it necessary to determine in respect of all of the other findings which ones would also constitute a valid reason for the dismissal."

She dismissed Mr Angelakos' submission that he should have been issued a warning, finding Coles was entitled to think Mr Angelakos would not comply with the code and EO policy if his employment continued.

Coles chastised


The commissioner also had stern words for the supermarket giant.

Coles acknowledged there had been 'rumours' and complaints about Mr Angelakos' conduct prior to any formal complaints being made. It said: "Coles itself was not satisfied with the actions taken by Mr Holloway to manage those earlier 'rumours' and complaints. Coles issued Mr Holloway with a final written warning as a result. To the extent that Mr Holloway failed to escalate those issues that he was aware of throughout 2017, he was acting outside of his authority as store manager and his inaction should not be attributed to Coles."

But Commissioner Hunt said that was "an extraordinary claim to make. Mr Holloway was not acting outside of his authority; he simply was not doing his job to an appropriate standard. He had the care of young people in his employ, and there were sufficient grumblings to have warranted his attention.

"Coles is one of the largest employers in the country. If an area manager can’t visit the store at least twice a year and speak with employees and supervisors, and seek their views on how management is performing, that is a dreadful state of affairs. A regional store manager should not be the dead end for the making of complaints; a relationship between Mr Holloway’s manager and store employees should be par for the course. "

She also took aim at Coles for its brief termination letter to Mr Angelakos. The letter stated he had been summarily dismissed for serious misconduct and that his final pay would be made as soon as practicable.

"The letter is elementary and lacking any specificity," she said.

"It would have been prudent for Coles to have listed all of the proven allegations as the reasons for the dismissal..."

Nonetheless, the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

The application was dismissed.

Read the judgment


Peter Angelakos v Coles Supermarkets Aust Pty Ltd T/A Coles Supermarkets (U2018/3306) [2019] FWC 29

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