The director of the University of Otago's marketing and
communications division has been accused of bullying and being
responsible for a ''toxic'' environment in the division.
The accusations against Virginia Nicholls were made at an
Employment Relations Authority (ERA) case in Dunedin
yesterday by former head of marketing services Kerry
Kirkland, who claims she was unjustifiably dismissed and is
seeking more than $270,000 in compensation from the
The accusations were supported by two other former staff
members - including Dr Kirkland's predecessor - who agreed Ms
Nicholls bullied staff and created an unhealthy environment
in the division.
Dr Kirkland said the university failed to adequately address
problems in the division.
''The work environment was toxic and the university had
knowledge of the problems but refused to acknowledge or
remedy this which is what made the working relationship
untenable,'' she said in a statement provided to the
After Dr Kirkland took the job in October 2011, it soon
became apparent Ms Nicholls' management style was causing
problems, Dr Kirkland said.
''I found the atmosphere in the department to be oppressive
and staff members were distraught about the situation with Ms
Nicholls and how they had been treated by her.''
Her relationship with Ms Nicholls got to the point where she
went on stress leave in February this year after a doctor
provided a medical certificate saying her work environment
was harmful to her health.
The university responded on March 20 with a letter saying Dr
Kirkland could not return to work unless she had a medical
certificate saying she had ''recovered'' enough to return to
work in the ''existing environment''.
She was later sent a letter dismissing her from her position
on May 16 on the grounds of ''medical incapacity''.
Dr Kirkland argued the condition requiring her to get a
medical certificate before returning to work was illegal and
impossible to fulfil.
She said her relationship with Ms Nicholls deteriorated after
allegations made by other staff members that she had been
''rude'' in meetings were repeatedly brought up by Ms
She felt the allegations were unfounded and was disappointed
they were not investigated by the university thoroughly
enough for either her name to be cleared or for her to be
able to learn from her behaviour.
Under cross-examination of Dr Kirkland, counsel for the
university Barry Dorking asked if comments made by her during
the meeting with one of the staff members could be perceived
as being ''rude''.
Dr Kirkland replied saying ''clearly'', but said she was
merely doing her job.
After being questioned by ERA member David Appleton about the
''extraordinary amount'' of compensation she was seeking, Dr
Kirkland said she was still having problems sleeping.
Her experience had resulted in a loss of confidence, damage
to her reputation and she was yet to find a full-time
Dr Kirkland's predecessor, Ruth Mackenzie-White, told the
authority she left the university because of her relationship
with Ms Nicholls.
''I regularly felt bullied by Ms Nicholls and I was
frequently in tears in my one-on-one meetings with her due to
the way she spoke to me.''
Former staff member Kate Kidson, who left the division this
year, also backed Dr Kirkland, saying in a statement to the
ERA she ''witnessed'' Ms Nicholls bullying Dr Kirkland. She
also talked about the unhealthy culture in the division.
''In my opinion, there was a culture of fear at the
department of marketing services.''
She was present at one of the meetings where Dr Kirkland was
accused of being ''rude'' and did not believe the accusation
Lawyer David Sim gave evidence on a report he wrote for the
university on Ms Nicholls' management style after the
university received a letter of complaint about Ms Nicholls
from the Tertiary Education Union.
Under cross-examination from counsel for Dr Kirkland, Len
Andersen, Mr Sim accepted there were problems in the
division, but stood by comments that none of the about 70
allegations he uncovered ''could reasonably be described as
bullying'' - a comment he made in a letter to the court.
Mr Appleton said he did not ''understand'' how some of the
allegations made by Dr Kirkland to Mr Sim could not be
described as accusations of bullying.
Mr Sim replied to his questions saying, ''bullying is an easy
word to use, but whether there is any substance [to claims of
bullying] is another question''.
University chief operating officer John Patrick said
following Mr Sim's report, the university had taken actions
to improve the situation in the division.
He had met division staff in February and told them they
could raise any concerns over Ms Nicholls' behaviour, for a
period until June 30, directly with him.
Ms Nicholls was also asked to participate in a leadership
Asked if the environment had improved since, he said, ''Yes,
I think [it has] improved significantly.''
He mentioned, based on his experience, that Dr Kirkland could
be ''abrupt'' and recalled his first meeting with her, saying
she told him: ''They tell me you can be ... a difficult
person to deal with.''
He also recounted a meeting he had with Dr Kirkland in
February at which he told her the university was not going to
discipline her over accusations she had been rude in meetings
with other staff.
At the meeting, he offered for the university to investigate
the claims of rudeness made against Dr Kirkland.
Mr Appleton said there was confusion over whether the
investigation offered would involve disciplinary action
against Dr Kirkland.
Mr Patrick replied saying the investigation would not have
been part of any disciplinary action.
The case continues.