TechnologyOne executive chairman Adrian Di Marco was “deceptive and self-serving” and stood “with the bullies rather than the bullied” in his treatment of a former senior manager, a Federal Court judge has said as part of a record $5.2 million unfair dismissal finding against the company.
Behnam Roohizadegan, a former Victorian manager for the listed software firm, was awarded the record damages payout on Friday after Justice Duncan Kerr found he was unfairly dismissed in 2016 after complaining about being bullied at work.
Mr Roohizadegan was subjected to abusive language, victimisation, gas-lighting, and “boorish” conduct, the judge found, with his treatment at the hands of TechOne’s executives leaving him “incapable of ever working again”.
In one incident, Mr Roohizadegan claims to have been publicly abused by then-sales and marketing executive Stuart MacDonald at a state managers meeting in Brisbane on May 12, 2016.
“Screw you Behnam,” Mr MacDonald is alleged to have said. At a later meeting Mr MacDonald was said to be “screaming, shouting, bullying, humiliating and [using] inappropriate language”, saying things such as “F— you Behnam. You don’t get it.”
Mr MacDonald has since been promoted to chief operating officer at the company.
Mr Di Marco told the court the decision to dismiss Mr Roohizadegan was solely his, and was based on claims that licence fees in Victoria were “unacceptably” stagnating, plus multiple complaints about his conduct around other staff and managers.
But Justice Kerr said Mr Roohizadegan’s recognition as one of the company’s top performers through “chairman’s awards”, the granting of share options in the company, and continued personal access to Mr Di Marco refuted these claims.
“I am entitled to be satisfied that had Mr Roohizadegan not been a strong performer he would have been given very short shrift,” the judge said.
Mr Roohizadegan suffered a mental breakdown after his dismissal and was already battling depression, triggered by his teenage daughter contracting a severe illness.
Executives ‘deceptive’, ‘graceless’
Describing Mr Di Marco as “the king of the jungle at TechologyOne”, Justice Kerr said that the founder and then-CEO twice rejected professional HR advice that it would be unfair to dismiss Mr Roohizadegan on the basis of “mere allegations”.
“In the end, in Mr Roohizadegan’s instance [Mr Di Marco’s] choice was to stand with the bullies rather than the bullied,” Justice Kerr said.
“To achieve effective deterrence, CEOs in like positions need to know that such temptations as he faced are to be resisted: and that there will be a not insubstantial price for failing to do so.
“… [Mr Di Marco’s conduct towards [Mr Roohizadegan] for whom he says he had had a soft spot was … deceptive and self-serving if not cruel.”
The judge said Mr Di Marco was a “highly unimpressive witness” who gave “tortured and evasive” responses and was “reluctant to acknowledge inconsistencies within his evidence”.
He found that it was “implausible … that Mr Di Marco gave truthful evidence” about not recollecting certain events and that he gave “disingenuous” answers to questions challenging his evidence.
Mr MacDonald was also not a “witness of the truth” and only abandoned dishonest lines of evidence when he was forced to make a “graceless concession” that he had lied in cross examination, the judge said.
TechOne to appeal decision
A source close to the company said the business had “tripped over the law” when it terminated Mr Roohizadegan’s contract, given the onus on the company to prove the termination had nothing to do with his track record of complaints, but they had never imagined such substantial damages would be awarded.
The source said Mr Roohizadegan had lost the confidence of management and had been given substantial support for years to try to improve the sales performance of the region.
“This is a guy earning [almost] $1 million a year, he was a very senior person, and that’s been lost in the whole thing,” the source said.
“The treatment [by the judge] is like he was a low-level employee at McDonald’s that raised a valid health and safety complaint.
“The last couple of years he hadn’t been performing and had lost the respect and confidence of his peers and the senior executive team.”
According to the court documents, Mr Roohizadegan’s gross income was $845,128 in 2015-16, mostly attributable to incentive payments. His base salary was $192,000.
The source alleged that 12 complaints to HR had been made against Mr Roohizadegan by TechnologyOne Victorian sales employees and this had been a tipping point for the company to act.
The court judgment references “several” complaints being made against Mr Roohizadegan in April 2016, but does not detail their nature.
The TechnologyOne source contested the view that the company had a poor culture in its sales team, but admitted there had been some issues in that team and that it was a “sales-driven company”.
In a statement to the ASX, Mr Di Marco said that the judgment showed that employers could not safely dismiss staff members if there was “any hint of a complaint” from that person.
“There is a reverse onus of proof for a company to prove the complaint was not a factor in the decision to terminate,” he said.
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TechnologyOne said it planned to appeal against the decision and had “always believed that it has acted lawfully”. It alerted the ASX on Friday that taking the judgment into account, it expected to be at the lower end of guidance.
Mr Roohizadegan, who said he had suffered “many dark nights over the past four years as [his] case dragged through the courts”, was disappointed by the decision to appeal.
“It is very disappointing that TechnologyOne, in spite of this damning court judgement, are going to appeal and continue their deep pocket ‘war of attrition’ against me,” he said.
“I was hoping to attempt to start the rebuilding of my life with my family.”