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Conduct at or outside work can earn dismissal

The Dominion Post – Tuesday 12 November 2013


New Zealanders have been shocked by recent developments in the "Roast Busters" investigation being undertaken by New Zealand police.

Members of a Facebook group calling themselves Roast Busters have boasted online about getting young women drunk and engaging in sexual activity with them, without consent. Some of the victims are believed to have been under age.

The public backlash has been significant. Even the prime minister has joined in the debate, describing the events as "very disturbing and abhorrent".

Police are continuing to work on the investigation but so far have not been able to prosecute members of the group due to insufficient evidence.

It has now emerged that a teenager laid a rape complaint in 2011 after an incident with three men from the Roast Busters group. She said she was 13 at the time and believes that she was one of Roast Busters' first victims.

The police commissioner has been summoned to the Beehive to discuss police's failure to prosecute at the time.

Two radio hosts recently interviewed 18-year-old "Amy", a friend of an alleged victim of the group. They referred to the bragging done by the Roast Busters gang about their nefarious activities as "mischief".

They suggested that some of the women who consented to sex at the time might now "line up" and claim that they were raped.

Uproar ensued.

The hosts apologised and stated that they don't condone the actions of the Roast Busters group, but that they were just trying to canvass complex issues.

They were engaged by MediaWorks, which issued a statement saying that they also do not condone the "reprehensible actions of the Roast Busters".

Readers will recall the worldwide publicity provoked by Sydney-based DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, who prank-called the Duchess of Cambridge's hospital in London when she being treated for morning sickness.

They pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. They obtained medical information from a nurse about the duchess.

The nurse subsequently committed suicide because of the distress caused to her from being identified as the person to have revealed personal details about the duchess.

Again, uproar followed.

Cynics may question whether elements of the media promote controversy in order to boost ratings and audience numbers.

In the Roast Busters example, both of the commentators have been retained.

The Sydney radio station dissociated itself from the actions of its DJs.

MediaWorks had not gone that far.

Finally, after a week of negative publicity, the MediaWorks hosts, Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, have stood down until the end of the year (two months).

That only happened after several high-profile companies pulled advertising. Already one is talking of returning.

Employees have an obligation not to bring their employer into disrepute. Conduct both inside and outside the workplace may warrant dismissal if it undermines the relationship of trust and confidence.

Recently the Employment Relations Authority considered the case of Guy Hallwright, a senior investment analyst at Forsyth Barr who became involved in an altercation with a motorist at an Auckland intersection.

Following the argument Hallwright ran over the other driver, causing him serious injury. He claimed that it was an accident. Forsyth Barr rightly considered Hallwright to be "innocent until proven guilty".

However, in June 2012 he was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with reckless disregard. The case received significant media attention, much of which associated Hallwright with Forsyth Barr.

After the trial and sentencing, Forsyth Barr dismissed Hallwright for committing serious misconduct. It claimed that he had brought the company into disrepute.

The ERA decided Hallwright's dismissal was justified. Forsyth Barr had persuaded the authority that his actions had the potential to adversely impact on its business operations. Hallwright has appealed against the decision to the Employment Court. We await its decision.

Recent events demonstrate the importance of the media acting responsibly in how they get stories and in what they publish. Part of this involves having and enforcing clear guidelines and standards to contractors and employees.

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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