A bakery sexual harassment victim has been awarded $30,000 and a year's pay after she was forced to resign from her job.
Almost as soon as joining the Waikato supermarket bakery, a male assistant manager began pestering the female employee.
After nearly a year of hassles including facing talk about sex lives and porn, the harassed colleague broke down.
But she fought back - taking her case to the Employment Relations Authority in what an employment advocate called a brave journey.
"She is overwhelmed by the decision," advocate Ashleigh Fechney told the Herald today, after her client was awarded compensation.
"Before we went to the authority, it was all about victim-blaming," Fechney said.
"Being at the authority was of course a very stressful and anxious time, but she felt respected, and heard."
Fechney said the bakery employee had faced serious trouble not only in the workplace but afterwards, where she worried about gaslighting and not being believed.
"She hasn't been able to work for a year."
The decision could potentially be contested but so far amounted to what Fechney estimated as being more than $70,000 when lost wages were taken into account.
The alleged harasser claimed the pestering behaviour was "boys' jokes or banter" but the ERA found the bakery company mishandled the investigation.
The new assistant manager had started work in August 2019 and he quickly started commenting on the staffer's appearance.
The beleaguered employee said a group of male staff members perpetuated a culture of obscene conversations which made her uncomfortable.
The assistant manager talked abut his sex life - and asked the worker about her sex life.
Employment Relations Authority member Peter Van Keulen said one offensive event involving a sexual remark and gesture caused the female employee major distress.
"She described the action as causing her to completely shut down and break. Her heart was racing, her breathing became erratic, and she started shaking."
The company's human resources department was approached about the incident, and gave the victim two rostered days off work.
Within a few days, the harassed woman told the HR department about unwelcome, inappropriate and offensive behaviour.
Speaking to the HR manager, the woman offered to stay away from work until progress was made on the investigation and her health improved.
The HR manager investigated, interviewing 10 bakery workers.
But the employee was unhappy with the investigation and said after discussions about returning to work, felt she had to resign.
Van Keulen held meetings about the allegations in late February and April this year.
The bakery worker sought name suppression, for reasons including her concerns publication of her name would retraumatise her.
She said the company failed to address a sexual harassment complaint she made
in June 2020, and failed to keep her August complaint confidential.
Van Keulen said the company knew about the risk of sexual harassment occurring.
"The bakery manager heard discussions of this kind going on amongst the employees, particularly the male staff who worked in the bread department," van Keulen added.
He said the manager also took part in or at least condoned the behaviour, accepting it as "just the boys' jokes or perhaps the girls' gossip".
Van Keulen said there was no evidence the female employee had herself initiated offensive behaviour.
He said the bakery took some generic steps to prevent sexual harassment. It had a policy on harassment and trained managers in identifying and dealing with bullying and harassment.
But that was not good enough, he said, and the bakery did not take reasonably practicable steps to prevent the employee being sexually harassed.
For the humiliation, loss of dignity and psychological harm, the ERA awarded the former bakery worker $30,000.
And for lost earnings due to unjustified dismissal, she was awarded twelve months' wages.
The bakery's advocates have been approached for comment but weren't immediately available.
Fechney said the ERA decision could be contested but she was prepared to go to the Employment Court if necessary.
"Because of the culture it was foreseeable that she'd be sexually harassed," Fechney said.
And it was foreseeable the bakery worker would have been forced to resign because of harassment, she added.
It was still tough for sexual harassment victims, Fechney said, but at least possible to get justice now.
"It doesn't have to be insurmountable."