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Employers' body left with little choice but to get rid of Thompson

The Dominion Post - 11 July 2011

Alasdair Thompson has been sacked as the Chief Executive for the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association, according to newspaper reports.

Readers will have followed the controversy about Thompson with keen interest. He claimed that women are paid less than men because, at least in part, they take more sick leave than men. They do that because of their menstrual cycle, Mr Thompson said. 

He claimed to have evidence, but not with him for the interview, in which the statement was made. That evidence never emerged. Mr Thompson was reported on television programmes saying he was sorry if he had upset anyone by what he said. But shot himself in the other foot by saying what he said was actually true.

Many women have been arguing that, although the battle for equal pay has been won, there is some work which is principally done by women where the rates of pay are generally lower than they would be if men had been doing the job.

They seek equal pay for work of equal value. So there are occupations perhaps such as nursing, that have been largely carried out by women and where the argument would be that the wage is lower than it would be if men did the work.

There have been attempts to benchmark women dominated industries with male dominated industries that are comparable, leading to the argument that the pay should be adjusted accordingly. When Labour was in power considerable sums of money were spent on projects in the Labour department focusing on these issues.

Mr Thompson’s comments will reignite women’s anger at what they consider to be a subtle form of discrimination in terms of their pay and remuneration. Thompson has no doubt succeeded in having his Association look very old fashioned and out of touch.

No doubt a considerable amount of angry correspondence and invective was directed against it by members of the public, particularly those who believe there is discrimination in this area.

Two things stood out about Thompson’s handling of the issue. In the first place he showed very poor judgement. A person in his position should be aware that a claim like this would be controversial and in the absence of solid evidence, it seems a very stupid thing to say.

The second thing that stood out was the way Thompson handled things. His television appearances were unbelievably inept for a person in such a senior role. He looked very much like yesterday’s man.

But was what he did enough to dismiss him? The public don’t have access to his employment agreement or any rules or guidelines relating to his employment with the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association. In terms of general principals, the employer could argue that it had lost trust and confidence in him

He no doubt would argue that what he did was poor performance and if the employer was unhappy with him, it should carry a disciplinary investigation and give him a warning.

For a high profile position such as Thompson’s it is in the interests of both to resolve their differences through negotiation, rather than have the matter create further publicity by being played out in Court. Both the Northern Employers Association and Mr Thompson were wise in settling privately.

Deals like the one that they struck happen every day particularly where the parties have an interest in privately resolving their differences, as here. The amount of such payments in my experience vary enormously depending upon the seniority of the individual being removed and whether or not they have engaged in blame-worthy conduct.

For instance, where a Board wants a Chief Executive out and there is no good performance based reason for doing it, sums equivalent of up to a years pay or more may be paid. Generally, settlements are much more modest.

Where the employer is not concerned about publicity, or where for policy reasons the employer wants to fight a dismissal that has been challenged, then the matter will go to Court and will result in publicity.

Usually settlement agreements are confidential between the parties, in Thompson’s case the terms of this settlement will probably emerge. The Northern Employers Association is a membership based organisation and members will want to know what has happened with their funds.

There’s obviously already been intense pressure within the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association on the issue. Air New Zealand, one of the most significant employers in the country, has resigned from the Association because of it.

There would have been many others putting pressure on for Thompson to go and the matter to be resolved promptly. The Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association probably had no choice but to get rid of Thompson regardless of the legal strength of its case.

What happened as a lesson to those in senior positions that dealing with media is an important part of their role. A bumbling presentation to the media along with controversial comments may well mean that a Chief Executive cuts their own throat in public.

In this case, an unfortunate finish to a no doubt a long and dedicated career.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm is one of only eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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