Editorial: Rennie drops ball over Bach

One what would happen should a State Services Commission employee approach chief executive Iain Rennie, place his or her hands on his head, and inquire what is going on in there.

Till a few days ago conjecture would have been irrelevant. The employee would have been stood down while an inquiry was conducted, then, once the facts were confirmed, dismissed for unacceptable behaviour. The whole process would have taken a matter of days. Some things are simply unacceptable in the workplace. One of them is employees manhandling their bosses; another is bosses manhandling employees.

However, Mr Rennie's handling, or should that be mishandling, of a complaint against Department of Building and Housing chief executive Katrina Bach changes the rules.

In May last year Jaime Rawlings, then a department employee, raised a personal grievance against Ms Bach. She said she had been spoken to harshly and sworn at by the chief executive and that, in a separate incident, Ms Bach had put her hands on her head and said, "What is going on in that head of yours?"

There followed a drawn-out investigation by an independent lawyer overseen by the then acting chief executive of the Education Ministry, Karen Sewell (who, somewhat bizarrely, concluded Ms Bach's behaviour did not constitute bullying because it "was not intended to cause harm or distress"), a confidential payout to Ms Rawlings, and months of toing and froing between Mr Rennie, Ms Bach and her lawyers.

At the end of it Mr Rennie ruled her conduct was inappropriate and unacceptable, but did not warrant her dismissal. He let her off with a warning and a monetary penalty. He erred. Only a prude would say swearing should automatically be a sackable offence. Bad language is as common on the shop floor as it is on the sports field. But it is one thing to swear, another thing to swear at a subordinate and another thing entirely to touch an employee in the manner Ms Bach did.

Mr Rennie says there were extenuating circumstances. The February 22 Christchurch earthquake had placed extra pressure on Ms Bach and her department and unspecified "personal circumstances" were adding to the pressure at the time of the incidents. Poppycock.

Ms Bach,who is alleged by former staff to have presided over a culture of bullying, is paid a chief executive's salary to deal with the demands of a high-pressure job. Doubtless, she was placed under extra pressure by the quake, but the pressure she faced in her Wellington office could hardly have compared to that faced by emergency workers on the ground in Christchurch, or even utility workers battling to restore water, electricity, and telephone services while worrying about the safety of their own families.

Mr Rennie's job is to maintain high standards in the public service. By excusing Ms Bach's inappropriate conduct he has done the opposite. That is cause for unease at a time when the Government is looking to expand the commission's role as it reshapes the public service.

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