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Put bullying into reverse gear

31 March 2015

Public reaction to bullying can be a fickle beast. The recent incidents involving Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson and X Factor NZ judges Willy Moon and Natalia Kills demonstrate this.

Jeremy Clarkson was involved in a fracas with one of the Top Gear producers. 

Apparently Clarkson arrived at a hotel and expected a cooked dinner. However, due to Clarkson’s lateness, the chef had left and warm food was not available.

We are told Clarkson then abused the producer and there is even a suggestion that the producer was hit. The BBC commenced an investigation and the final three shows of the current series have not been shown.

A petition entitled Bring Back Clarkson was started and gained over a million supporters.

Despite this, it has now been announced that Clarkson will be dismissed from the show.

In New Zealand, Moon and Kills have also been dismissed from their television roles. During a live show in March, they were widely considered to have crossed the line, in regards to comments they made about a contestant.

Comments from Kills included: “as an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property I am disgusted by how much you have copied my husband, from the hair to the suit.”

Kills also said “do you have any value or respect for originality? You’re a laughing stock. Its cheesy, it’s disgusting. I personally find it absolutely artistically atrocious” and so on. 

This caused a backlash on social media against the X Factor Judges. A petition was started calling for Kills to be removed as judge and garnered over 21,000 signatures.

Both judges were quickly dismissed.

In one incident, the public was desperate for heads to roll, whereas in the other the public begged for mercy for the perpetrator. Perhaps this difference can be attributed to the fact that in one case, years of public exposure had gained the goodwill of the public. In the other case, the personality was fresh to the public eye and yet to gather much affection.  Or perhaps our tolerance of bullying depends on how we view the bullied?

What Kills and Moon said on X Factor was broadcast live over television. We felt for the shaken contestant. What Clarkson said and did was behind the scenes.

It is not uncommon for employers to face the same tough decisions when responding to bullying. They see the same spectrum of bullies; from those that are highly valued members of a business to those less than popular. Those who witness bullying on the staff often feel for the underdog and this places pressure on the employer.

The Employment Relations Authority and courts regularly deal with cases of bullying. In the case involving Nutype Accessories Ltd, a senior employee was seen by another staff member disposing of pornographic films outside the employer’s premises. Following this he was persistently bullied by the watchful staff member.

The bullying took the form of verbal abuse although there was some physical abuse alleged as well. The staff member would regularly make expletive-laden comments to the employee like “you don’t belong here, bastard” and “you’re disgusting”. Do these comments seem similar to Kills’ and perhaps Clarkson’s?

The employee wrote a letter to the managing director and said that if the bullying was not resolved he would be forced to leave the company. He was advised the staff member had been given a final warning and if the bullying occurred again the staff member would be dismissed.  The staff member continued to abuse the employee and the employee complained again, but Nutype took no further action. The employee resigned.

The Employment Court held that, having been made aware of the bullying, the employer was obliged to investigate the bullying and take steps to prevent it. The breach was serious and the senior employee concerned had been “stripped of all authority, dignity and pride. His work place became intolerable and his resignation was foreseeable”. The worker won his case and received $12,500 for hurt and humiliation along with the reimbursement of lost wages.

Employment law is clear. Where an employer is aware of bullying, steps must be taken to stop it. A safe place of work must be provided. It appears in the cases of Top Gear and X Factor decisive steps were taken following bullying. It would seem the approach of media companies aligns with New Zealand employment law.

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

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