One of the most bitter, expensive and protracted employment
cases in New Zealand highlights how initially minor tensions can
Ms Snowden v Radio New Zealand case is, perhaps, the
most stark example in recent times of extreme incompatibility in
the workplace. But it started with some tensions in the
relationship that were "not particularly serious" and
deteriorated into one of the most acrimonious employment disputes
to come before the New Zealand courts. Ms Snowden told the
Employment Court that she had spent $3.5million in her claims
against Radio New Zealand.
The bitter dispute and protracted litigation between Ms Snowden
started in late 2002 and lasted nearly 12 years. The Employment
Court finally heard the claims and issued a decision in April 2014.
One of Ms Snowden's claims against Radio New Zealand is that
she had been unjustifiably dismissed in 2005. The Employment Court
heard extensive evidence about the way in which the employment
relationship between Ms Snowden and her CEO deteriorated
progressively in 2002 over a dispute about financing and budgeting
for the News Division led by Ms Snowden. Radio New Zealand was
increasingly concerned with what appeared to be Ms Snowden's
ineffective financial management of her division, mainly by
overspending on staff costs. For her part, Ms Snowden alleged that
the financial difficulties in her division were not her fault, but
the result of deliberate underfunding of the News Division by Radio
New Zealand. Disciplinary allegations were raised by Radio New
Zealand against Ms Snowden in late December 2002. Ms Snowden went
on sick leave in January 2003 and never returned to work.
Radio New Zealand took a number of steps to try and address Ms
Snowden's concerns including commissioning Deloitte to carry
out a review of the newsrooms, providing assistance from the
Finance Division to Ms Snowden to help her identify and address the
budgeting issues and attending mediation five times between 2002
and 2005. During this time, Ms Snowden continued to make
increasingly serious allegations of financial mismanagement against
Radio New Zealand and its senior managers and raised various legal
claims for, among other things, defamation and unjustified
disadvantage. A new CEO at Radio New Zealand attempted to meet with
Ms Snowden in 2004 to try and address the issues in the employment
relationship but she refused. Despite this, Ms Snowden maintained
that, from her perspective, the employment relationship was not
irretrievably broken. Radio New Zealand disagreed and dismissed Ms
Snowden in 2005.
The Employment Court agreed with Radio New Zealand, concluding
that Ms Snowden was justifiably dismissed.
The case is an extreme example of incompatibility in the
The case confirms that, from a legal perspective, the onus is
firmly on the employer in incompatibility cases to show that:
It had come to the reasonable conclusion that the relationship
This was wholly or primarily attributable to the employee who
was dismissed and
A fair process was followed.
If the seriousness of incompatibility was primarily the fault of
the employer, for example, because the employer was harassing the
employee or ignoring complaints made about an issue, then a
dismissal would be very difficult to justify.
Employers should first take steps to see if the issue can be
resolved. These could include discussion between the parties
facilitated by an impartial senior manager, or a mediator from the
Department of Labour, to see if the parties involved can come to a
Another option is to use an external specialist consultant, such
as an organisational psychologist, to work with your staff members
- individually and together - to try and get to the bottom of why
the incompatibility has occurred and see if there is any prospect
of it being overcome.
Sometimes, it is possible to separate employees who simply do
not get along to minimise disharmony in the workplace, but this
should normally only be done with the consent of the employees
If faced with a potential issue of a personality conflict in the
workplace, swift action is necessary. The earlier the issue is
addressed, the more likely it is that it can be overcome.
Personality conflicts which are left to fester often deteriorate
and ultimately result in irreconcilable differences requiring a
carefully handled process.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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Long experience representing many of Australia's leading employers has taught us that in employment litigation the identity of an employee's representative is a major factor in how employee litigation runs.
This WHS decision clarified the interpretation of s 19 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW).
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