Fire and Emergency New Zealand [FENZ] has commissioned an independent review of workplace policies to address bullying and harassment.

And leading the review panel is retired judge Coral Shaw, whose investigation earlier this year into sexual harassment at the Human Rights Commission uncovered a system that failed to provide proper care and support for claims made by staff.

It follows work by National Sexual Violence Survivor Advocate Louise Nicholas, a member of the review panel, supporting firefighters who were allegedly victims of sexual assault.

The FENZ review, expected to take several months and covering the entire organisation of 14,000 professional and volunteer members, is long overdue according to critics.

Advertisement

In a letter to staff seen by the Herald, FENZ chief executive Rhys Jones said a big part of the review would be looking at "internal culture".

"We need to shift from our traditional cultures, which reflect our historical make-up, to one that encompasses diversity in gender, ethnicity and thinking."

The aim is to develop, lead and support a positive and inclusive workplace culture, free from bullying, unwanted behaviour and all forms of harassment.

The scope included assessing current workplace policies, procedures and practices for addressing harassment and bullying against best practice models in New Zealand, identifying existing policies are fit for purpose, and identifying ways to reshape policies.

Victim advocate Louise Nicholas is on a panel set up to review Fire and Emergency New Zealand's workplace policies to address bullying and harassment. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Victim advocate Louise Nicholas is on a panel set up to review Fire and Emergency New Zealand's workplace policies to address bullying and harassment. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It's hoped the review will achieve:

• Committed and engaged FENZ leadership that rewards positive behaviour;

• Accountability by all FENZ staff for their behaviour;

• Strong anti-harassment policies;

Advertisement

• Trusted complaint procedures;

• Regular training and mentoring to create empowerment, respect, equity and fairness;

• And the removal of any barriers to achieving those outcomes.

In March, Nicholas posted on a volunteer members Facebook page offering support to any firefighters who had experienced sexual assault and wrote she was already working with some victims.

The office of the chief executive acting director, Bella Sutherland, said the review was prompted by the launch of FENZ in July last year.

Sutherland said FENZ was an amalgamation of 40 different organisations including the Fire Service, the National Rural Fire Authority, 12 rural fire districts and 26 rural fire authorities, which lead to 40 different cultures and ways of working.

The review panel included Shaw, Nicolas, Simpson Grierson partner Samantha Turner, researcher Carol MacDonald, and potentially one more, who met for the first time more than a week ago.

Sutherland said it was up to the panel whether they would interview complainants.

"However the review will not investigate or make factual findings about the substance or merit of any individual incidents or allegations."

The review comes after ongoing complaints of bullying within FENZ and the former Fire Service, some high profile and dividing whole communities.

Several complaints, known about by the Herald, had been to the Employment Relations Authority and some were currently going through internal investigations while others had been settled.

Judge Coral Shaw before she retired from the Employment Court. Shaw will oversee a review into bullying and harassment at Fire and Emergency New Zealand. Photo / One News
Judge Coral Shaw before she retired from the Employment Court. Shaw will oversee a review into bullying and harassment at Fire and Emergency New Zealand. Photo / One News

A former volunteer firefighter, whose case cannot yet be detailed, said he was pleased to hear a review had been initiated.

"It's a long time overdue. I'm certainly pleased. I think for a long time in the Fire Service there has been an intimidating culture and they are needing to be seen to be taking steps to minimise and avoid that."

New Zealand Professional Firefighters' Union national committee member Boyd Raines welcomed the review.

"The unions and the associations would all be supporting him [Jones] in this because they've all agreed there's nothing more important than our people.

"And to make people feel valued and taken seriously they have to address when an allegation is made, that it's being taken seriously, whereas maybe in the past it hasn't been."

Anti-workplace bullying campaigner Allan Halse of CultureSafe NZ Ltd called the review essential but said "the panel lacks the knowledge of workplace bullying - from an employee's/volunteer's perspective - and the level of knowledge of FENZ and the former NZ Fire Service that is necessary for the panel to be successful".

Shaw, a retired Employment Court judge, found outdated sexual harassment policies, highly dysfunctional leadership and commissioners who barely communicated when she reviewed the Human Rights Commission in February after a former intern raised concerns over the handling of her sexual harassment complaint.