Car dealership mogul Rick Armstrong has been ordered to pay more than $30,000 to a former employee after conducting a "purposeful campaign" to remove him.
Jeetan Parbhu began working for Armstrong's company in 2007, transferring to luxury dealership Armstrong Prestige Wellington in 2009, and becoming brand manager.
In an Employment Relations Authority decision, member Michele Ryan said Parbhu was called to several meetings in September last year with Armstrong and former Prestige general manager Pat Conneely, at which he was asked to step aside from his position and return to a sales role.
When he refused, it was claimed Armstrong criticised his suitability and told him he did not have the "killer instinct".
Soon after, Parbhu received a letter advising him the company was looking to restructure his position. He was told by several sources that he was to be replaced by Simon O'Reilly, a staff member from one of Armstrong's six other dealerships. After Parbhu's lawyer sent a letter to Armstrong seeking an exit package, he was told to leave the premises, and O'Reilly began work three days later.
Parbhu, along with his support person and Conneely, all described Armstrong conceding that he was aware he had gone about the process the wrong way and that "it would cost money but that [he] did not care".
In her decision, Ryan disagreed with Armstrong's claims that the redundancy was legitimate, stating that Parbhu's and O'Reilly's job descriptions were almost identical.
There had been no mention of restructuring during meetings until Parbhu received the letter, which Ryan said was "a belated attempt to rewrite history".
"I find that Mr Armstrong's conduct throughout the four meetings evidence deliberate, serious and sustained breaches . . . Mr Armstrong conducted a purposeful campaign to remove Mr Parbhu from his position.
"He failed to advise Mr Parbhu that he had employed Mr O'Reilly to assume his position, and I find those omissions were calculated, misleading and deceptive."
Giving evidence at the hearing, Conneely described Armstrong as a "strong personality" who did not like people to frustrate his plans.
"He comes into the room and the room isn't big enough for him. In a sense he was the business . . . when he gets an idea and he's going to do it, then he does it. It does not matter what anyone else says or does."
Speaking to Fairfax NZ, Armstrong rejected the authority's findings.
There had been no intention for Parbhu to leave the business, as he was a good salesman. But Armstrong said he did not believe he was ready for an advanced management role.
"I think it was just process that basically just tripped us up more than what happened morally."
He had started the informal process so he could approach the situation in the "friendliest way possible".
"I think they've got the whole case wrong, I mean, we wanted him to stay . . . there's no way I tried to move him out. I did try to move him sideways, but on the same money. When you have a workforce of 250 employees, inevitably you will end up with one or two disgruntled staff members."
Ryan awarded Parbhu $33,343 and ordered the company to pay a $2500 penalty as punishment for its unlawful actions.
Parbhu now works at a different Wellington dealership.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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