By: Anthony Drake
Most employers are committed to providing a safe and productive working environment free from all forms of physical, emotional and verbal abuse.  However, from time-to-time a case comes before the courts which is noteworthy.  In a decision of the Employment Relations Authority[1], Ms Vicki Higgs claimed her manager would call her up 10 times a day at the weekend and abuse her if she did not answer the phone.  She also claimed that she often worked between 45 to 47 hours per week but was only paid for 40 hours.  Ms Higgs told the Authority that, if she did not answer the phone (because on occasion she was unable to), her manager would leave abusive messages or call back and rant at her about not answering.  Ms Higgs tried to talk to a company director about the problem but was told ‘that’s what he’s like’.  The Authority found that the company had sufficient knowledge that the manager was bullying and harassing Ms Higgs (and her excessive workload and long hours) and failed to take any real steps, let alone practical steps to deal with the issues.  The company was fined more than $40,000.

We all know that harassment and bullying in the workplace is unacceptable and should not be tolerated in any circumstances.  Employers and managers have a responsibility to respect the rights of employees including the right to work in an environment free of harassment or bullying.  Managers or employees who perpetrate, or knowingly tolerate harassment or bullying of others will place the company at risk for damages and fines.  The Higgs case highlights the need for managers and directors to take every reasonable action to ensure that harassment or bullying does not occur within the company.

The company should develop clear policies which aim to ensure that its structures, practices, policies and guidelines are free from direct or indirect harassment or bullying.  A key principle of any policy should be a commitment to treat all claims of alleged harassment or bullying seriously, impartially, sensitively and confidentially.  The company should develop a complaints procedure where grievances can be received, addressed and resolved, if possible.  If you require help with developing a suitable policy, please contact the Wynn Williams Employment Team.
[1] Vicki Higgs v Canterbury Relocations Limited & Tru Group Limited [2019] NZERA 191 (determination issues on 2 April 2019)
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