9 Mar 2015

Staff speak out at Facebook privacy ruling

10:07 am on 9 March 2015

Some current and former staff of New Zealand's biggest credit union are questioning whether senior management will be held accountable for trying to destroy the career of a former staff member.

Karen Hammond

Karen Hammond Photo: SUPPLIED

Former NZCU Baywide employee Karen Hammond won record damages of $168,000 last week after the Human Rights Review Tribunal found company executives waged what it described as a shameful and inexcusable campaign against her.

NZCU Baywide took a private picture of a cake Ms Hammond had baked with swear words about the firm from Facebook and distributed it to employment agencies, warning against employing Ms Hammond.

The Human Rights Review Tribunal found the entire episode was marked by personal animosity against Ms Hammond and a desire by the senior management team to exact revenge.

It said if chief operations officer Grant Porter's personal animosity towards Ms Hammond had been reined in, the company could have avoided the enormous harm inflicted on Ms Hammond and upon itself.

A current staff member, who spoke to Radio New Zealand on condition of anonymity, questioned why Mr Porter and chief executive Gavin Earle still held their positions, given the tribunal's findings.

"They just think if we stay quiet, we don't engage, it will blow over and it will go away," the staff member said.

"A lot of staff are too scared to say, but why does Grant still hold his position when clearly the decision states he was the one who drove this.

"The board should be held accountable as well. They know what was going on."

NZCU Baywide

NZCU Baywide Photo: RNZ / Peter Fowler

The staff member said there also appeared to be a conflict of interest with NZCU Baywide chairman Iain Taylor being a partner in law firm Gifford Devine, which NZCU Baywide used to defend the case against Ms Hammond.

Former chief financial officer Peter McAulay told the tribunal hearing Gifford Devine were not specialists in privacy law and his advice to the company was it should use company lawyers Chapman Tripp.

Worried about the damage the case could do, Mr McAuley met Chapman Tripp whose advice was "stop the bus and settle".

"I had one last attempt at asking about the legal advice we were getting, but by this stage Gavin had become short and aggressive in tone. I therefore decided to wait for a better time to raise what Chapman Tripp had said," Mr McAulay said.

"Unfortunately it became increasingly clear to me that Gavin did not want to settle with Karen for what appeared to be personal reasons."

Mr McAulay said he was shut out of discussion about Ms Hammond after he suggested the company was vulnerable and should settle.

'Culture of fear'

A former network administrator for NZCU Baywide, Andrew Day, said Ms Hammond's case had publicly exposed what he believed was a culture of fear at NZCU Baywide, in which the executive punished anyone who questioned their business practices.

For example, an email presented at the tribunal hearing showed Ms Hammond discovered NZCU Baywide was underpaying commissions to car dealers and she pointed it out to the executive.

Lending manager Julie Baxter replied that NZCU Baywide should just sit tight on the basis that none of the car dealers had noticed.

Mr Day believed by pointing such errors out, Ms Hammond became a target for management.

"I never really felt safe," he said. "I figured out pretty early on that the general rule was to keep your head down and not to challenge the status quo even if the status quo wasn't working - you shouldn't challenge it, you shouldn't make waves. Cos, you don't do any good doing that, you just make yourself a target."

Mr Day said NZCU staff and customers had a right to know if anyone in the senior management or board would be held to account for the debacle exposed in Ms Hammond's case.