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Published 10 October 2023 | 2 min read
Workplace altercation leads to resignation and $18,000 compensation
A radio host in Auckland has been awarded $18,000 in compensation after he was unjustifiably dismissed following an altercation with a company director.
The case highlights the importance of employers maintaining a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their concerns, and where conflict is resolved in a constructive and respectful manner.
Changyong Zhang worked for FM 90.6 Chinese Radio, which is owned by JRL Culture Media. In May 2022, Zhang was concerned about the circumstances of a friend and colleague leaving the radio station. He was told by a colleague that Yapping Feng, a director of JRL, blamed him for the colleague resigning.
Zhang wanted to confront Feng about the alleged comments she had made about him, but could not find her, so went to a recording room and phoned the station manager, who was also Feng's daughter, Irene Du, and asked her why her mother made allegations and comments about him.
Feng was allegedly standing outside the recording room at the time and overheard the conversation. Zhang said Feng began to yell at him saying "Do you want to quit?" She repeated this question twice while shouting at him.
Zhang said to Du over the phone, "Your mum's asking me whether I want to work here any more. I want to tell you I may not”.
At this point Feng came into the room and attempted to grab Zhang's phone off him.
Feng told the Employment Relations Authority that she was not shouting but said the conversation could be described as being robust, and she accidentally touched Zhang's hand as she attempted to snatch the phone.
It was unclear what exactly happened next, but in a recording of the incident played to the authority both Feng and Zhang could be heard shouting and some form of physical altercation took place, with Zhang complaining Feng was pinching him and a chair could be heard crashing to the ground.
Authority member Andrew Gane said both Zhang and Feng were in highly agitated states, and Zhang was clearly traumatised by the events.
"After hearing the recording and reading the transcript of the meeting I prefer Mr Zhang's version of events," he said.
Zhang then resigned from the job. He said the symptoms from stress were severe, to the extent that he had physical as well as mental pain. There was some medical evidence to support his claim.
Gane said in some circumstances, a resignation might amount to a dismissal.
"I find that JRL has breached its duty of good faith to Mr Zhang, and this has resulted in him resigning. I find it was entirely foreseeable in the circumstances of this case that the breach of good faith would cause Mr Zhang would leave his employment.
"I find it likely that Mr Zhang left the workplace distressed after Ms Feng spoke and behaved aggressively at the meeting on May 4, 2022, shouting at Mr Zhang and physically handling him. Mr Zhang was left traumatised by the incident. Mr Zhang said he was in a state of shock over what had happened. It was entirely foreseeable that he would not put up with this course of conduct or could feel safe returning to the workplace."
Gane ruled Zhang was unjustifiably dismissed and awarded $18,000 as compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings. He was also awarded reimbursement of lost wages being three months' salary or $8400 and holiday pay of $672 after he was not paid the correct hours during his employment.
Lessons for employers
This case is a reminder to employers that they have a duty of good faith to their employees. This means that they must treat their employees fairly and with respect, and avoid any conduct that could be seen as bullying or harassment.
If an employee resigns after being subjected to bullying or harassment, this may be considered to be an unjustifiable dismissal. Employers should be aware of this risk and take steps to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace.
What employers can do
There are a number of things that employers can do to prevent workplace altercations and ensure that conflict is resolved in a constructive and respectful manner. These include:
- Creating a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their concerns.
- Having clear policies and procedures in place for dealing with workplace conflict.
- Training managers on how to resolve conflict effectively.
- Being aware of the signs of bullying and harassment, and taking action to address these issues promptly.
- If an altercation does occur, investigating the matter thoroughly and taking appropriate disciplinary action against any employees who are found to have breached the company