A Northland honey company has been ordered to pay a former employee $18,000 for unjustified dismissal.
Phillip Evans was dismissed without notice from his job as a site relations manager with Manuka Mountain Apiaries Limited, in April, 2019. His subsequent personal grievance claim was inherited by Manuka Mountain Limited when the companies later amalgamated.
The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) heard the case last May.
In its recently released decision, the authority found Evans suffered humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to his feelings caused by the shock of his dismissal, the way it was carried out, and what he experienced as retaliatory conduct towards him from Manuka Mountain afterwards.
The authority said $25,000 was an appropriate level of compensation but the final amount awarded was reduced because Evans was not completely blameless.
The authority rejected four of five reasons the company gave for having sacked Evans, but accepted Evans was at times involved in business activity that competed with the business and interests of Manuka Mountain.
In evidence, the authority heard Evans was summonsed to a meeting with Manuka Mountain's managing director Paul Whitehead on April 29, 2019, but was not told it was of a disciplinary nature or that it could result in his dismissal.
He was not told he could take a representative or support person and was not given a chance to get advice before responding to the company's claims.
The meeting took 30 minutes, during which Whitehead read to Evans a typed letter headed, "Termination of your employment – dismissal without notice", then signed and gave it to him.
The letter was pre-prepared by Manuka Mountain's field relations manager James Schmidt and had the following day's date. It said Evans' feedback was taken into account.
The ERA found Schmidt and Whitehead "fell well short of the statutory threshold of fairness in their treatment of Evans that day.
"Manuka Mountain had not sufficiently investigated its allegations and gained clear evidence on which it could safely rely to dismiss Mr Evans that day.
"Mr Evans' silence in response to a number of the allegations was unfairly taken as acceptance rather than an expectation he would get some time to consider the concern raised and respond before any final decision was made.
"Relying on a long pause after each topic as an opportunity to respond was not sufficient to meet the procedural requirements... particularly so where Mr Evans suddenly found himself in an unexpected meeting with no opportunity to seek and get any guidance," the ERA said.
There were no arrangements made or instructions given to staff members to keep news of Evans' dismissal or the reasons for it, confidential.
Evans' told the authority he was deeply affected by the suddenness of his dismissal and the sting of the accusations Manuka Mountain made about his integrity in making that decision. He understood news of the allegations became widespread among people he knew.
His upset at being dismissed was made worse by Manuka Mountain beginning District Court proceedings against him (to stop any potential commercial activity by him), and by making a criminal complaint to Police about him.
Necessary evidence of the company's claim of serious misconduct by Evans was only discovered after the dismissal.
The ERA said it was activity that, "if known to his employer before the decision to dismiss him, could legitimately have been identified as serious misconduct".
It showed Evans had at times provided information to other beekeeping businesses, arranged a site finding fee ($2000) for himself from one of those businesses, and made arrangements for payments to some landowners in a way that did not accord with standard commercial practice, the ERA said.
"It was conduct of a truly significant nature, being inconsistent with his duties of good faith and fidelity to his employer," the ERA said.
In response to the judgement, Whitehead told the Northern Advocate Manuka Mountain deeply regretted any employee, past or present, would feel unjustly treated by it.
He said the company inadvertently misapplied proper procedure when it terminated Evans' employment.
Given the ERA's recognition and summation of Evans' conduct, the significant amount awarded seemed unjust, Whitehead said.
* Manuka Mountain Limited changed its name in November last year to Manuka Mountain Honey Limited.