A woman has been awarded nearly $45,000 after she was unfairly treated at work and phased out in a sham company restructure.

Gayle Clearwater worked at the Invercargill office of heating and ventilation company BL Rayner 1993 Ltd and was promoted to operational planner for the branch in 2016.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found she was unjustifiably disadvantaged and wrongfully dismissed in October 2017.

Unusually, the colleague with whom she clashed, Larry Thompson, was also awarded $10,000 after the authority found he, too, was unfairly dealt with.

Advertisement

In July 2017, Clearwater was told Thompson had made lewd comments about her physique after seeing her profile on the dating app Tinder.

She complained to management then confronted her co-worker, telling him to "shut his mouth" and not "lie about s...".

Though the latter course of action was inadvisable, authority member Andrew Dallas said in a recently released judgement, it was clearly in the heat of the moment.

Gayle Clearwater worked at the Invercargill office of a heating and ventilation company. The Employment Relations Authority found she was wrongfully dismissed. Photo / 123rf
Gayle Clearwater worked at the Invercargill office of a heating and ventilation company. The Employment Relations Authority found she was wrongfully dismissed. Photo / 123rf

Thompson was interviewed by Rayner bosses, including operations manager Mariska Du Preez, days after the alleged incident.

While she believed he protested too much for a person who had done nothing wrong, financial controller Bill Potter could not be convinced he had made the offensive comments.

The company reminded Thompson of its behavioural expectations and put in place measures to try to limit contact between him and Clearwater.

Restrictions, however, were very difficult to implement because she was required to interact with him as part of her job and he would "push the boundaries" to deliberately interact with her in the tea room or around the ablution facilities, the ERA heard.

Du Preez said two such occasions left Clearwater feeling threatened.

Advertisement

Giving evidence at an authority hearing in April, she said "the decisions made by Rayner during the investigation into Mr Thompson's conduct were motivated to protect its own interests and took no consideration of Ms Clearwater's needs or safety".

Dallas was scathing of the steps taken by the company.

"What is inexplicable ... is why, having imposed these [restrictions] on Mr Thompson, Rayner did not enforce them or if it did, did so in an unenthusiastic and inconsistent manner," he said.

"Rayner would have almost certainly had grounds to suspend him following not one, but two, incidents of threatening behaviour towards her, as reported by Ms Du Preez. Rayner's actions here are almost inexcusable."

Five days after Clearwater raised a personal grievance, she was told the firm was proposing a restructure that would make her redundant.

Potter said it "was absolutely genuine and a proper process was followed".

But the ERA disagreed.

The restructure, in which Thompson and Du Preez were also made redundant, was for a "pre-determined ulterior purpose, other than for genuine business reasons", Dallas said.

Clearwater was awarded $14,095.71, equating to three months' wages, and $30,000 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

She had attended counselling after the ordeal and said it was very demoralising to lose control of her finances and rely on savings and the generosity of friends and family.

Clearwater told the Otago Daily Times it had been two years of "hell" and she had spent nearly the entire sum on legal fees.

Rayner has now ceased trading and its assets have now been transferred to the MFT Property Trust.