Ex-NCC worker claims bullying

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:58 10/06/2014

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A former city council worker's claims of workplace bullying and its effects on her and others are linked to her being sacked from her job, the Employment Court in Nelson has heard.

Former executive assistant Robyn Hutchison fought her December 2011 dismissal on the grounds it was unjustified, and continued her fight for the sake of justice, she told the court.

It was a fight she took first to the most senior council boss at the time, Nelson City Council chief executive Keith Marshall who told her he had no intention of getting involved in a disciplinary process, Hutchison said.

She also went to councillor Gail Collingwood who was shocked enough to take it to then mayor Aldo Miccio, and Nelson MP Nick Smith in his role as Minister of Local Government, who showed sympathy but could not intervene, she said. Hutchison was employed in May 2011 as the part-time executive assistant to senior council managers Alec Louverdis and Geoff Mullen.

Seven months later she was gone. An unjustified dismissal claim followed but the Employment Relations Authority found that circumstances "rendered her ineligible" to raise a personal grievance outside the statutory 90-day period. The pathway was then cleared by the Employment Court for her case to be heard.

Hutchison, who now lives in Wellington and continues to work as an executive assistant, claimed several instances where she was "undermined" and "humiliated" by her bosses.

She said the council had used "mob-like intimidation in their attempt to overpower me". She said the tipping point was the treatment of a former colleague at a work performance meeting in which she was asked to take notes.

Details surrounding the former colleague known as Mr J, who died in September 2011, were not admissible in court.

Hutchison is not represented by a lawyer at the hearing but is being assisted by an agent, former Nelson police inspector Hugh Flower. He said her case was around her perceived treatment by various council officers which put her in an untenable position.

"One of the big catalysts for the action she took was her presence at a meeting involving Mr J and the treatment he received.

"She became extremely concerned, not only for her own wellbeing, but that of others and for altruistic reasons, she did what she did," Flower said.

City council lawyer Marie Kirk was asked by Judge Bruce Corkill to respond, for the sake of fairness and balance, on the first day of what is scheduled as a three-day hearing. Kirk said she would argue that the plaintiff would make "offensive, sensationalised allegations" against NCC senior managers she deemed "outrageous because they're untrue".

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Kirk said she would argue that Hutchison's views were unsupported by evidence, but her opinion only. Kirk said concerns arose, they were investigated, a disciplinary process was embarked on and the plaintiff was dismissed. She said the matters constituted "serious misconduct".

They included a breach of duty of good faith in that Hutchison sent work emails to her home email address, a confidentiality breach by making a statement to the police and another breach by undertaking secondary employment. Hutchison said that involved a one-week trial direct selling catalogues.

Hutchison told the court she was "deeply distressed" by news of Mr J's death and she shared what she had seen with the coroner, out of "moral duty" and in an attempt to offload.

She was then contacted by the Nelson police and asked to make a statement, but was never called as a witness at the inquest.

Hutchison said the breakdown in the relationship with boss Geoff Mullen happened less than two weeks after she started working at the council.

She was asked to take notes in a series of meetings between him and Mr J.

Hutchison said she was disturbed by what she saw as the harsh approach taken. She believed a comment she made to the HR administrator was passed on to Louverdis, at which point things went from bad to worse.

She suffered "severe anxiety and depression", and felt powerless to the point of not being able to do or say anything to Louverdis or the council's human resources manager Stephen Gully.

- The Nelson Mail

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