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Extra risks in work romances

15 September 2015

All readers will be aware of the conventional wisdom that one should not enter into romantic relationships with those you employ. Various colourful aphorisms capture this sentiment.

If only we were perfect and followed conventional wisdom.

A recent case heard by the Employment Relations Authority in Auckland is a reminder of what happens when the romantic relationship festers and dies.

Peter Maynard was the governing director of Hauraki Rail Trail and was in a romantic relationship with Carol Baker. Baker commenced employment with the firm in January 2012 as marketing manager.

Baker said that they began living together around the time she started her employment, but she relatively quickly formed the view she did not want to continue the personal relationship, but did want to retain her job.

About five months after starting work, Baker left the relationship and moved back to her own home, but her employment continued.

Events took a violent turn that saw Maynard brought before the criminal courts.

The first interaction occurred where Baker claimed that Maynard broke into her house to recover property owned by Hauraki Rail Trail.

The second interaction occurred the next weekend when Maynard arrived at the Baker property wanting to collect some tools. At the same time, Baker tried to remove papers from the work vehicle and was then assaulted by Maynard.

Baker claimed the assault directly or indirectly brought the employment to the end.

Despite these events, the company continued to pay her wages. It wrote to Baker maintaining that the employment relationship would continue and that it wanted to engage with her to resolve any employment relationship problems and suggested mediation.

In the meantime, Baker had complained to police about the assault and alleged that Maynard had broken into her home. Maynard was found guilty of assault but not guilty of the alleged break-in.

The ending of any romantic relationship is accompanied by grief, sadness, and often anger. The same can happen when an employment relationship ends. When both endings are inter-related, the emotions can be overwhelming and it is not surprising any subsequent dispute may find its way to employment resolution institutions.

The result in the Hauraki Rail Trail case was that the authority held, not surprisingly, that the employment relationship could not continue after the assault. The assault by the governing director had created, we are told, the kind of environment where no right-thinking employee could reasonably be expected to continue in the employment.

Baker was awarded $17,500 in compensation.

An earlier case involving Booth and Big Kahuna Holdings traverses similar problems created by mixing romance and work.

In that case, Brendon Brendon Booth began employment with Big Kahuna, a small family-orientated company, and was made general manager quickly.

Within a year, he began a romantic relationship with the daughter of his manager, the daughter being 17 years his junior. She moved into shared accommodation with Booth.

Her father was a director of the firm, and her mother also worked in it. They took a dim view of the relationship and, in particular, the age difference.

In evidence, the father said he and his wife thought the relationship with his daughter was “inappropriate, unprofessional and disrespectful” to them because of the age gap. Perhaps they were also concerned that Booth was a senior manager who had significant control over their daughter in the workplace.

In 2013, Booth’s relationship with the daughter ended and she moved back in with her parents. Despite her requests for him not to, Booth made several attempts to contact her.

The father became involved and told Booth to stop harassing his daughter. He said that it was up to her whether she wanted to speak to him, but that it was business as usual at work.

Booth, on the other hand, said the father had made it clear that if he contacted the daughter his job would be at an end.

It is hard to conceive that business could proceed as usual in these circumstances.

After the separation, Booth engaged in a lengthy text exchange with a female friend of the owner’s daughter, who also worked at Big Kahuna, and asked her to go over to his place that evening.

The next day the friend told a colleague of the text exchange and the father/ director became involved. After an investigation process, the father dismissed Booth.

The grounds for the dismissal were that Booth had engaged in serious misconduct. First, because there was a power imbalance between the second woman and Booth given their relative ages and his seniority. Second, that he had placed persistent pressure on that woman to go to his private residence.

Third, that he offered a day off in lieu if she did go to this residence, and finally, that Booth had not accepted the inappropriateness of this conduct and that it may have been in breach of the company’s house rules.

The Employment Court held that Booth was unjustifiably dismissed. The court stated that the director was ill-equipped to investigate the matters and make a decision regarding Booth, partly because of his strong feelings occasioned by Booth’s relationship with his own daughter.

These factors, the court said, undoubtedly affected his ability to approach the disciplinary issue with the objectivity and dispassion required.

The investigation process was flawed and inadequate. Because of his bias against Booth, the manager accepted the statements of the other lady without further inquiry, and failed to fully inquire into Booth’s explanation of events.

The Court awarded Booth $10,000 compensation for distress and $48,802 for lost remuneration and other benefits. However, these awards were reduced by 35 per cent for his contributory conduct.

Fallout from work-related romance break-ups may also extend to other staff in a business.

Where people allow their emotions to cloud their judgement, the end result is likely to be litigation and further grief in the employment institutions.

Cases like these, more than most others, cry to the heavens for a private resolution and mediation for the parties to move on with their lives - one of many lessons readers can garner from these tragic tales.

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.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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