A couple of jokes with a side of jest in the workplace is usually acceptable. We all like to think we know what the appropriate limits are when it comes to interacting with others at the office, but that’s not to say that it never goes too far. And if you do misjudge what is appropriate, there can be some pretty big consequences.
Recently the Employment Relations Authority heard a case where Mr N, a Senior Manager, was dismissed for serious misconduct after he made advances towards his workmate Ms A. Mr N had been working for the company for 18 years. He was a consistently high performing employee and was well-regarded around the office. Ms A joined his team in September 2014, and a change in position a year later saw her working directly for Mr N in 2015. Until this point Mr N and Ms A had a good working relationship.
But this is where the tale turns. In late 2015 Mr N claimed Ms A had confided in him, saying that she had been having marriage problems. Mr N subsequently developed romantic feelings towards Ms A. However Ms A said she had never actually told anyone at the office that she was having marriage issues, and had simply told Mr N that she might have to take some time off due to family difficulties.
And then the comments started…
Mr N began commenting to Ms A about how great her hair, make-up and clothes looked, as well as calling her ‘sweetheart’ and ‘stunning’. He sent her an email saying “You look super-hot!!! Good job with the hair. How much time do you have to spend now straightening it?” Mr N later asked if Ms A was going to download the dating app Tinder. By this point in time Ms A continually felt uncomfortable around Mr N.
Would you believe things got worse? Mr N sent Ms A Facebook messages, saying things like “Hey Sxy”, “I’m head over heels for you and have been since the first time I saw you” and “I will probably be very ashamed about this tomorrow but I would never regret it. X”. Ms A was shocked, considering they were both comfortably married and Mr N was significantly older than her. She responded by stating that she thought they had a good working relationship and wanted to maintain some sort of friendship.
Ms A felt like she had no other option but to continue working with Mr N, considering he was her superior.
Mr N continued to make Ms A feel uncomfortable, moving desks to sit closer to her at work and repeatedly apologised for sending the Facebook messages.
Unjustified dismissal upheld
Disciplinary action was eventually taken against Mr N and he was summarily dismissed for serious misconduct. The main concern was that he had repeatedly approached Ms A after she had made it clear she did not reciprocate his feelings. Mr N raised a personal grievance on the basis of unjustified dismissal. The Authority decided that although the company had followed a fair and reasonable procedure in deciding that Mr N’s actions amounted to serious misconduct, his dismissal was not justified. Mr N had been a long-serving, high performing employee and had taken responsibility for his actions throughout the disciplinary process. The company was ordered to pay Mr N seven months lost wages to the sum of $95,455.69 as well as compensation of $15,000 for hurt and humiliation caused.
Compensation reduced by 90%
The saga does not end there. Despite being “awarded” over $110,000, because Mr N had actually contributed to his own dismissal by his pursuit of Ms A, his compensation was reduced by 90%. Consequently, Mr N received far less compensation than the case suggests at first glance. So what can we take from this? It’s probably not a good idea to profess any sort of romantic feelings towards that person at the office who you think really works those shoes and that hair.