University ordered to pay ex-staffer over $12k

By Vaughan Elder

Photo / Ross Setford
Photo / Ross Setford

A staff member found to have been unjustifiably dismissed by the University of Otago hopes working conditions improve at the institution as a result of her case.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found former head of marketing services Dr Kerry Kirkland was unjustifiably dismissed and unjustifiably disadvantaged by the university.

ERA member David Appleton ordered the university to pay almost $12,500 for lost wages and emotional damages, after reducing damages by 25 per cent due Dr Kirkland's contribution to the outcome.

Mr Appleton did not uphold all of Dr Kirkland's complaints, including bullying allegations made against marketing and communications division director Virginia Nicholls.

Instead, Mr Appleton's finding was based on the university's failure to follow Dr Kirkland's wish for it to investigate the substance of complaints of rudeness made against her.

"I believe that the university's failure to investigate the substance of the complaints against Dr Kirkland ... was not the action that a fair and reasonable employer could have done in all the circumstances at the time.

"This failure clearly caused her disadvantage in her employment (as she felt unable to work in the environment where she might be accused of being rude again) and it was unjustified," Mr Appleton said in the decision.

In a statement released to the Otago Daily Times yesterday, Dr Kirkland said she was "relieved" the case was over and pleased to have "won the legal points in my case".

"My best wishes to the staff and colleagues I left behind and I sincerely hope that working conditions improve at the university as a result of my action."

While Mr Appleton detailed some of the wider issues over the working environment brought up as part of the case - including an August 2012 letter from the Tertiary Education Union calling Ms Nicholls' management "micro-managing, misguided and conflict creating" - he only made rulings on Dr Kirkland's specific complaints.

The complaints included that Ms Nicholls and summer school director Dr Elaine Webster had fabricated a complaint of rudeness against Dr Kirkland, and Ms Nicholls had falsely accused Dr Kirkland of being rude to two university staff and an external contractor.

In relation to these complaints, the ERA found Dr Kirkland had not suffered an "unjustified disadvantage" and the complaints of rudeness were genuine.

In making a decision to reduce damages by 25 per cent due to Dr Kirkland's contribution to the outcome, Mr Appleton said he believed Dr Kirkland had spoken to all the individuals "in ways which were reasonably seen by them as rude".

"It is highly unlikely that all of them had separately formed perceptions of rudeness unreasonably.

"Whilst I accept that Dr Kirkland did not intend to be rude (in the sense that she did not intend to cause offence), she still contributed to the situation, giving rise to the personal grievance by her words and tone," he said.

Dr Kirkland had been seeking more than $270,000 in compensation from the university, including $180,000 for humiliation, loss of dignity, and injury to feelings.

Mr Appleton said the $180,000 sum "far exceeds what is appropriate in this case, and the maximum that the authority is ever likely to award".

The university did not respond to a request for comment.

- Otago Daily Times

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