'Resign' and 'payout' become bedfellows

Hekia Parata and Lesley Longstone - holidays and golden handshakes.
Hekia Parata and Lesley Longstone - holidays and golden handshakes.

I don't want to be writing about this, trust me. I want to be writing about the creative use of barbecues and just the right complementary wines to go with your perfectly marinated steak.

I want to be writing about the perfect holiday to go with your perfect tan. I want to be writing about how to work for one year and holiday for three. I want to write about how to spend a million dollars of other people's money.

Instead I'm stuck with Lesley Longstone as my column companion for the week. How dreary.

How dreary it is that someone who resigns from their position as chief executive and Secretary of Education should then get a payout. Yes, I did write "resigns" and I did say "payout". Apparently now these two words fit snugly together, when it comes to modern day employment law.

Of course this is old news. Like the backdated pay increase MPs received, Lesley Longstone's departure was announced the week before Christmas. No-one was available for comment. Hekia Parata was on holiday and John Key was flat out Gangnam-styling his way around commercial radio stations. We all had better things to think about.

There are still better things to think about other than Ms Longstone's undoubted merits.

Things like the Novopay payroll system. From August to November of last year, 15,000 calls to the Novopay "service centre" were unanswered or abandoned. That equates to something like 180 calls every working day during those four months. That's what you call "putting the serve into service".

The calls were not for nothing. Apparently 7500 teachers were underpaid or not paid at all during this time.

On the plus side, 6000 teachers were overpaid and a lucky 581 teachers were paid for work at schools they were never even employed at. There's a good news story in there somewhere.

But the Novopay implosion isn't Lesley's fault. Others are to blame for this. Remember she's only been around for a single solitary year.

But boy, what a year. Charter schools, releasing National Standards data, class size increases, the closure of residential schools, the proposed Christchurch school closures and mergers . . . there's more, I'm sure.

But Lesley ain't to blame. Not for all of it. A wee payout after all her hard work is the least we can do.

As State Services Commissioner Ian Rennie says, "Lesley is a highly capable and dedicated professional who has been strongly committed to achieving better education outcomes for all New Zealanders."

You'll find that line, word for word, on the covering letter of her next job application.

Unlike this line: "I acknowledge Ms Longstone's efforts during her time at the Ministry," Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. We acknowledge your efforts also, Ms Parata.

Ian Rennie went on to say, in that week-before-Christmas news conference, "consideration will be made for the fact she has finished her contract early". By this, I don't believe Mr Rennie thinks Ms Longstone will pay the taxpayer money for ending her five-year contract early. We pay her.

And yes, someone put a five-year contract in front of her at the start of all this. And no, that person won't pay us either.

Mr Rennie indicated the payout Ms Longstone will receive will be a package that falls within the auditor-general's guidelines for severance payments in the public sector. When he says "a package" I suspect he may mean "a lot". There's speculation it may be a million dollars.

Lesley Longstone is quoted as receiving $320,000-$329,000 a year for her role with the Education ministry. Other reports put her salary up at $500,000. Either way, the figure is down from the $660,000 her predecessor got. So you could say we got a bargain.

Or you could say that employment law is a basket case.

It's certainly the way I'm feeling after hearing yet another story from a local Nelson employer who has had to pay out an employee he didn't fire correctly.

After 30 or so years of employing people, he won't do it again. Employ another young person, that is. His record of employing and training people stood for nothing. The merits or otherwise of the person he fired, likewise stood for nothing.

There is a procedural trail to follow. Stray from it at your peril. Employment lawyers are only too happy to remind you of it.

So, young people who are repeatedly not up to the job get corrupted by receiving "unfair dismissal" payments, they close the door for other young people and the Lesley Longstones of this world "resign" with golden handshakes.

Employment at both ends of the spectrum gets squeezed, and cynics like me just keep getting more cynical. Good employers and employees alike are left with a bitter aftertaste and employment lawyers continue to mine a profitable and productive seam of work.

It takes a brave person to hire anyone these days. Perhaps braver yet to fire them.

I wonder if Hekia is back from her holidays yet?