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Gossip got a hot reception

Dominion Post - 6 November 2008

Readers will be aware of the many pressures facing an engaged couple as their wedding approaches. The added pressure of a wedding day melee allegedly caused by the gossip of an employee who was invited to the wedding was too much for Mr Dessie Cox and he summarily dismissed the employee.

To understand the background to this sad occurrence, we must traverse a convoluted story.

Ms Lelieveld, the faithful employee, became concerned about the relationship between Dessie Cox and his fiancee, Rosie, after witnessing a number of incidents in early 2007. She passed on these concerns to a relative of Rosie's.

This seemed harmless enough till the wedding day, when Rosie's two sons and their partners discussed the alleged incidents. Later, at the reception, Ms Lelieveld told more.

Events then took a volatile turn when Dessie and his sister got into an argument over who was taking Dad home. The daughter-in-law "poked her nose" into the argument and one of the bride's sons who had heard the gossip flew at the groom, assaulting him with a bottle.

Shaken and bustled into another room, a bewildered groom was told that Ms Lelieveld had been the catalyst for the sorry state of affairs. He immediately called her on her cellphone, as she was leaving the reception herself, accused her of causing all the trouble that night and summarily dismissed her. He then confirmed the dismissal the following morning.

Ms Lelieveld, naturally unhappy with this outcome, filed a personal grievance for unjustified dismissal. The Employment Relations Authority considered the case, noting the alcohol intake of guests at the reception and a collective amnesia over the events of the night.

The employers claimed that "they were justified in dismissing an employee who through slander and defamation had brought her employer into disrepute and undermined the trust and confidence essential to the employment relationship".

That cut little ice _ what happened was not serious misconduct, we are told.

The lack of a fair procedure was overwhelming _ no notice of the allegations, no opportunity to explain, a closed mind on the part of the employer and no inquiry into circumstances.

Furthermore, while it was inappropriate of Ms Lelieveld to discuss her concerns at the wedding, she could not be held responsible for consequences of the assault that took place, or the sister-in-law "poking her nose" into the argument. She was awarded more than $11,000 in remuneration and compensation for her unjustified dismissal.

A wider point of interest to readers may be whether idle gossip can be prevented or limited in or out of the workplace.

Clearly, there is gossip in most workplaces; it is natural to share information and discuss other people's business around the water cooler.

It is worth pondering whether gossip about an employer's personal relationships can ever destroy the essential trust and confidence necessary to the employment relationship. The Bill of Rights sometimes protects freedom of speech.

A recent survey showed that gossip is often regarded negatively by employees and is the greatest "pet peeve" due to its potentially damaging effects. When it becomes malicious or unreasonable, issues of harassment and bullying could arise and an employer would be justified in addressing those through a disciplinary process.

If one considers a hypothetical scenario in which an employee hits his employer at the employer's wedding, outside work hours, we could consider whether it is regarded as an out-of-work incident. Guidance is provided by an Employment Court case where a beer tanker driver assaulted the manager of one of the employer's clients. It was a local pub the driver delivered beer to.

The court held that the company suffered potential commercial damage because of the assault, and dismissal was justified.

The Court of Appeal has also considered misconduct outside the workplace and commented that there must be a clear relationship between the conduct and the employment, including whether it undermines the trust and confidence necessary between employer and employee, for the employer to be able to take action.

It is easy to see how assaulting your employer, even outside work hours, could undermine and destroy the trust and confidence required in the employment relationship.

Misconduct both inside and outside the workplace, whether it be physical violence or idle gossip, must be sufficient to severely damage or destroy the trust and confidence between employer and employee.

Violence may well do this, but idle gossip is much less likely to destroy trust and confidence. In any workplace in New Zealand you are likely to find a degree of inter- office commentary and gossip, much of it good-natured, but some potentially leading on to future strife, especially on a wedding day.

Peter Cullen is a partner at Cullen - the Employment Law Firm

Email: peter@cullenlaw.co.nz

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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