The senior manager works for Brisbane’s Metro North Hospital and Health Service, which includes the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.
The senior manager works for Brisbane’s Metro North Hospital and Health Service, which includes the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

'Vinegar tits, root or boot': Health boss faces bullying claims

An investigation has been launched into allegations of bullying and harassment levelled by a group of about ten women against a senior manager working for the state's biggest public hospital district.

The Courier-Mail can reveal a group of current and former employees of the Metro North Hospital & Health Service have blown the whistle on claims of a "toxic" workplace culture left unchecked after initial attempts to alert superiors more than a year ago were not acted on.

Complainants allege they were given offensive nicknames by the senior manager, such as "Vinegar Tits," berated in meetings, pestered by having objects such as paperclips and rubber bands flicked at them while working, accused of "conspiring" when seen talking with colleagues or socialising outside of work, chastised for raising issues and banned from speaking to certain team members he held in suspicion.

They allege they were left feeling demoralised and fearful, with nowhere to turn for help.

In one example of the alleged inappropriate behaviour, it is claimed the senior executive played a game he referred to as "root or boot" while on walks with female team members outside the office.

It allegedly involved rating passers-by on their looks as to whether they were a "root or boot".

The Courier-Mail can reveal the wide-ranging allegations against the senior manager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was launched late last month by senior investigators from Metro North's Integrity Unit after multiple whistleblowers sent written complaints to chief executive Shaun Drummond.

Metro North HHS is the biggest hospital district in the state, with more than 16,000 staff.

It covers the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, Prince Charles Hospital, Redcliffe, Kilcoy and Caboolture Hospital.

The allegations were initially referred by Metro North to the Crime and Corruption Commission, which is understood to have sent it back to the health service's Integrity Unit for investigation.

Sources with knowledge of the investigation told The Courier-Mail allegations about the senior manager had first been raised more than a year ago with a senior Metro North executive.

It is understood the executive then interviewed multiple staff and is believed to have notified the Integrity Unit before suddenly leaving her position.

Allegations were also reported to HR as early as a year ago and a Metro North Integrity Unit investigator is understood to have been directly given accounts of alleged harassment at least six months ago, they claim.

But no known investigative action followed until written complaints were handed to the CEO last month.

Metro North has refused to comment on when it first became aware of the allegations or discuss its handling of any initial complaints.

A Metro North spokeswoman responded to questions to say it took "allegations of this nature extremely seriously."

"We are unable to make any comment relating to individual HR Matters," she said.

One aspect of the complaints involved the alleged use of offensive nicknames.

That included referring to an employee as "Vinegar Tits" behind her back, usually after she had become frustrated over the senior manager's behaviour, complainants allege.

"Vinegar Tits" was the nickname used by inmates for notoriously mean prison governor Vera Bennett in the 1980s iconic drama Prisoner; the precursor to the popular Wentworth remake.

Balding men were also allegedly jokingly referred to as "devon heads" without their knowledge.

The whistleblowers allege they were routinely required to drop everything to have lunch with the senior manager or go for a walk to get food and were accused of not being team players if they refused.

When they complained to a superior, they were allegedly told one of the staff would have to occupy him while they got their work done.

Staff also allege they were ordered not to talk to colleagues that the senior manager had labelled "conspirators" against him and were interrogated one-on-one if seen breaking the gag order.

Some complainants have told investigators he also closely followed team members on social media and made comments about photos they had posted, or remarked on their outfits, in the office.

In one alleged incident, it is claimed a staff member was "interrogated" at work over going for an after-work drink with colleagues without inviting him after he saw a photo of them together on social media.

The complainants also allege the senior manager would constantly badmouth members of his staff about their job performance to their colleagues.

There are accounts of employees being reduced to tears after being berated over their work.

The complainants allege they were set up to fail after being given multiple conflicting directions, or at times, no direction at all, then criticised for not getting the work done.

One former employee alleges staff dreaded attending informal morning meetings because of the senior manager's disrespectful and erratic behaviour towards those in more junior roles.

She claims staff would be interrupted in giving their updates during the meetings by him loudly sighing, rolling his eyes, flicking things at people or abruptly cutting them off.

He would allegedly refer to how much they were being paid if staff members asked for help.

Complainants say they were fearful of their ongoing employment if they raised issues.

Several complainants who spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity say the handling of their concerns made a mockery of Metro North's constant spruiking of its "Values in Action" policy.

"The really sad part was, the organisation spruiks these wonderful values and we, in our team, never saw any evidence of them," one former employee said.

Originally published as Health boss investigated over 'toxic' bullying claims