A Defence Force employee accused of sexually assaulting four colleagues was allowed to keep working alongside them while being investigated after bosses decided that because he had been drunk, there was no risk of him reoffending.
The victims felt unsafe at work, and unsupported by their employer, with one saying: "Apparently if you're drunk you can do what you like."
The revelation comes as part of an Open Justice investigation for the Herald on Sunday into how complaints of sexual assault in the Defence Force have been handled. Former employees say that despite an external review two years ago, silence among victims is still pervasive and for those who do speak out, they believe it can be "career-ending".
Former civilian employee Sarah - not her real name - has filed a personal grievance with the NZDF claiming they failed to provide a safe workplace, forcing her to resign.
She alleges that during a teambuilding event in 2020, one of her male colleagues got drunk and assaulted four of his teammates, including her. She claims he attempted to take her bra off after badgering her to get up and dance with him.
"I couldn't get away because he was holding me so tightly," she told Open Justice.
A senior team member at the event told the man to stop after he witnessed him assaulting another woman.
He later made a complaint to a senior member of staff about the man's conduct and became the main complainant in the case - not the women who'd been assaulted, Sarah says.
"We essentially just became witnesses to our own assault. They took away my right to actually complain."
Sarah claims that because of this, she and the other women were not entitled to see the report into the alleged assault, nor the evidence presented against the man.
Sarah also laid a complaint with the police. It is understood they gave the man a formal warning.
She said the man was allowed to keep working during the NZDF's process and although she worked in a different building to him, she still saw him around the base most days, which she said was awkward and inappropriate.
Shortly after the alleged assault, Sarah says she told her manager she didn't feel safe at work, and claims she was told to work from home.
"I didn't do that because my workload was too large, so they said it can't have been that bad."
Sarah says the man was given the statements made against him to read while at work and she was told by a fellow victim who worked closely with him that he "lost the plot and started yelling, calling us 'b******'."
Another woman the man allegedly assaulted at the event was left to work alone with him despite complaining to her manager about it, she claims. When nothing was done, the woman told Sarah, who complained to the commanding officer.
But she says she was then told not to bring complaints to management unless they were her own.
Sarah left six weeks after the incident.
"I didn't leave because I was assaulted. I left because of their response to it. It was almost like a parody of how to not handle a sexual assault complaint."
In a letter sent to Sarah after she'd left, the NZDF said that suspending the man from work was not legally an option because there was no reasonable likelihood of further offending occurring.
"Alcohol played a major factor in [the accused's] conduct and as such no further incidents occurred," the letter said.
Sarah said she felt as though the NZDF were trying to excuse his behaviour because he'd been drunk.
"Apparently if you're drunk you can do what you like."
The man resigned before the unit's commanding officer could make a decision on the case, avoiding any consequences for his alleged actions.
Sarah said NZDF held a leaving event for the man and photos were shared on Facebook, which retraumatised her.
When asked why the man was allowed to keep working alongside the alleged victims, Air Commodore AJ Woods said that each situation was unique. Open Justice also questioned whether alcohol was a mitigating factor in employee misconduct.
"The NZDF considers a range of reasons in determining whether suspension is appropriate," Woods said.
"Suspension is also not a form of disciplinary action and only in very limited circumstances can an employer lawfully suspend an employee. It is not usually justified if there is no reasonable likelihood of further misconduct occurring.
"In the particular circumstance referred to, the influence of alcohol was considered in the context of the risk of the behaviour repeating, and it was not the only factor considered."
The NZDF declined to comment further as Sarah's personal grievance with them is still active.
Mark James, national organiser for the PSA union, which represents current and former members of the NZDF, said suspension was well within the powers of the NZDF.
"Any lawyer would know that it's utter rubbish to say they can't suspend an employee.
"It clearly states in the collective agreement they have the ability to suspend, in fact they've done it to our members many times."
James said groping an individual was a serious example of misconduct and in his view would certainly warrant suspension.
"It's almost laughable they would claim that it's not possible."
James said that people like Sarah often won't raise issues they've had while working for the military, out of fear for the repercussions. In his view it was "career-ending, if you raise it you won't progress any further".
"Many victims are still employed and remain and hope it doesn't happen again."
James said the union had the option to take Sarah's matter to the Employment Relations Authority, or go through further mediation.
"We're still seriously concerned about what happened and that our member had to resign to feel safe.
"They can't deal with the simple stuff, so how on earth will they handle the more complex stuff?
"They can't resolve even the lowest levels of sexual assault in a reasonable, timely or professional manner."