John and Mary had been in a relationship and owned a business for several years before separating in 2016. Photo / 123RF
When a couple who co-owned a business separated, a bitter employment dispute started to unfold, resulting in someone being bitten, “adult toys” being displayed in view of the office, and a trespass order being served.
Now, the man has taken his ex-partner and business to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), claiming he was treated unfairly and “could not bear” to remain working in the business’s office.
John and Mary – not their real names – had been in a relationship and owned a business for several years before separating in 2016. As a result, John ended his financial interest in the business.
The company is now owned by a trust in which Mary is a shareholder and its sole director.
John was employed by the business as a property manager in November 2019. In April 2020, the office was moved from a central city location to some rooms in Mary’s house.
While Mary was not involved in the business’s day-to-day operation, she and John would often have disagreements about family matters, particularly living arrangements for their youngest child, during work hours.
In October 2020, Mary moved to another part of the country where her new partner lived. She planned to set up a business there but travelled between the two cities to visit her child in the months that followed.
Around this time, Mary had also arranged for an old friend, referred to as Ms G, to work for the business as a property manager. During the work week, Ms G lived at Mary’s house.
In February 2021, Mary and Ms G married. In her evidence, Mary described their marriage as an “expression of support between two women who were raising children together”. Mary also remained in a relationship with her partner, who was a relative of Ms G.
On November 4, 2020, Mary and John met at a café to discuss parenting arrangements. John brought along his new partner, Ms E.
The discussion became “heated” and ended “badly”, with Mary biting Ms E, leaving a bruise and bite mark on her arm. Mary then reported her own actions to police.
Mary had also sent John a text that day saying, “Hope you die.”
When John arrived at work the next day, he noticed some items had been placed on the windowsill of a room in Mary’s house that he had to walk past to get to the office.
He described the items as a samurai sword, a gun and “adult toys”. John complained to Mary that he felt threatened by the items, and they were removed the next day.
In giving evidence, Mary said the items had been placed there as a joke between her and Ms G, describing the gun as a “slug gun” used for target practice. She denied any intention to threaten John.
On November 11, Mary called John into a meeting with Ms G. John thought it was work-related, but Mary began discussing parenting arrangements. The discussion became “heated” with John shouting, hitting the table and slamming the door as he left the room.
An employee nearby said he heard two loud bangs, which he suspected was John hitting the fence outside with his fists.
Five days later, Mary announced she would be stepping back into the business as managing director.
The following week, John was called into a disciplinary meeting regarding a complaint about his behaviour towards Mary, which if proved, could be seen as serious misconduct and result in his dismissal.
Following the meeting, the pair agreed to keep their working relationship “strictly professional” and all personal communications were to be after work hours.
In the following two months, John and Mary had little workplace contact until February 24, 2021, when John told HR he was no longer enjoying the job or workplace environment.
He said he would not resign, but would “need a payout” to change jobs “so he would either get made redundant or fired, and bring a personal grievance to get a payout”.
The following day, the business received a complaint about John’s work from its second biggest customer, demanding that he be removed from working on her portfolio of properties.
As a result, these properties were reassigned to Ms G.
On March 3, 2021, Mary announced a “restructure follow-up” and discussed her plans for the property managers to do more of their own administrative work as the office administrator had resigned.
John resigned that day, wishing the company all the best for the future.
At the end of his employment, John raised a personal grievance, stating his resignation was a constructive dismissal resulting from incidents of “bullying and inappropriate behaviour” from Mary.
He said he no longer felt comfortable on the worksite and “felt he had no option but to resign”. He also said he suffered “unjustified disadvantage” when the business failed to grant him “domestic violence leave”, instead recording it as unpaid sick leave.
John applied for domestic violence leave as a result of how he said he had been treated by Mary, including allegations of physical assault.
During the ERA’s investigation process, it became clear that Mary was directly involved in assessing John’s request for this type of leave.
John had made arrangements to return his work vehicle and phone on March 19, but two employees turned up at his house a day early to collect these items. They also served John a trespass notice from the office at Mary’s house.
The business denied John was disadvantaged or unjustifiably dismissed and said his resignation was a reaction to learning that the complaint made against him would be investigated.
ERA member Robin Arthur acknowledged that Mary used her role and control in the employment relationship to pursue her concerns about personal family matters, which breached her duty of fair treatment owed to him.
He said John was “unfairly pressured” while at work to take part in discussions that should have been confined to outside of work hours, resulting in an unjustified disadvantage.
Arthur also found that serving a trespass notice during a work-related visit was unfair to John and not appropriate.
Arthur ruled that while John’s employment did not end in constructive dismissal, he was unjustifiably disadvantaged.
As a result, the business must pay him $2230 for lost wages and $7000 compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to his feelings.
Emily Moorhouse is a Christchurch-based Open Justice journalist at NZME. She joined NZME in 2022. Before that, she was at the Christchurch Star.