13 Nov 2015

Sacked inspector awarded $20k compensation

2:45 pm on 13 November 2015

A Housing New Zealand inspector who lost his job over sexual harassment allegations has been awarded $20,000 and six months' pay for being unjustifiably dismissed.

The Employment Relations Authority found the man's employer, Programmed Facility Management (PFM), had breached all of its statutory obligations to him.

Feleti (Fred) Key was dismissed in July 2015 after starting work at PFM in 2014, following a complaint made against him after an interaction between himself and a female colleague while on a work-related outing.

The complainant said she found Mr Key friendly, but some of his comments made her uncomfortable and she felt they were inappropriate.

The woman approached PFM operations manager Marius Nortje to raise her concerns and was asked to email him with specific details, which she did on 3 July:

"I found Fred very friendly, although at times felt a bit uncomfortable with his comments as although they could be construed as being friendly - I did feel they were inappropriate.

"He invited me several times to have coffee with him, which I rebuffed or changed the subject.

"On the drive back to Penrose, I had to prompt him to take the Penrose motorway exit, and when I asked him to take this exit, although he did reluctantly, I felt awkward, and he then said he would prefer to take the 'long way' to continue talking with me (not exact words).

"I understand that he is very friendly, however the discussion was over-friendly and not appropriate at times. I was left feeling quite awkward, and nervous of what was to follow."

The Authority noted that the email was the only written record in the complainant's words, and that it referred to Mr Key as being overly friendly and did not claim she had been sexually harassed.

Mr Key was told on the day the email was sent that a complaint had been made against him; four days later he was told he was being suspended as a result of the allegations.

A formal disciplinary meeting was set for the following week, in which Mr Key was told he would be required to put forward an explanation for "allegations of inappropriate conduct with PFM employee".

At no point was Mr Key given any specific information about what had been alleged, but he was told the outcome of the meeting could result in a formal warning or dismissal.

Because of this, Mr Key's lawyer Olinda Woodroffe requested the meeting be rescheduled and said Mr Key would be returning to work the following Monday.

After he spent a day at work, Mr Key was told to pack up his things and go home until the disciplinary meeting was rescheduled, at which point his lawyer asked for full disclosure of all relevant information.

The following day this was provided, but still PFM failed to disclose the actual complaint.

The disciplinary meeting was finally held on 17 July and attended by Mr Key and his lawyer, the manager of PFM Brian Moreland and another PFM staff member.

The Authority concluded that Mr Moreland had unfairly formed an "adverse view" of Mr Key during the meeting, largely because his lawyer answered the questions for him.

The Authority said that English was Mr Key's second language, he was upset and stressed, and was fully entitled to have his lawyer speak for him.

Mr Moreland also told the Authority that he was influenced by his personal knowledge and view of the complainant, who he had worked alongside for a number of years.

He described her as a "down to earth, robust farm girl" who was used to working in a male environment and was not prone to overreaction or sensitivity.

Mr Moreland told the Authority his favourable view of the complainant had influenced his view of the veracity of her complaint.

But again this was not shared with Mr Key and the Authority concluded that PFM did not sufficiently investigate the concerns, it seriously breached good faith and that there were a series of fundamental failures which deprived Mr Key of a genuine opportunity to respond.

Mr Key was awarded six months lost remuneration as well as $20,000 to compensate him for the loss of dignity, humiliation and injury to feelings as a result of his dismissal.