Bullying claims rejected

A University of Otago senior manager has denied accusations of bullying and says the former staff member suing the university for unfair dismissal was ''very rude'' to other staff.

The accusations of bullying against marketing and communications division director Virginia Nicholls were made during an Employment Relations Authority case being heard in Dunedin.

A decision on the case was reserved yesterday.

Former head of marketing services Kerry Kirkland claims she was unjustifiably dismissed and is seeking more than $270,000 in compensation from the university.

The accusations by Dr Kirkland were supported by two other former staff members, who gave evidence on Tuesday and agreed Ms Nicholls bullied staff and created an unhealthy environment in the division.

Ms Nicholls, who gave evidence yesterday, felt she had not acted inappropriately in her interactions with Dr Kirkland, who had been ''very rude'' to other staff.

''I think Kerry's inability to see the effect she had on people was a real issue,'' she said.

She had raised other staff's accusations of rudeness with Dr Kirkland immediately after the meetings in question.

Counsel for Dr Kirkland, Len Andersen asked Ms Nicholls if she understood what effect she had on her staff.

''I think so. I have been a manager for a long time,'' Ms Nicholls replied.

Mr Andersen then referred to a university commissioned report by lawyer David Sim, which said the environment in the division was ''untenable as far as the staff health and wellbeing is concerned''.

Ms Nicholls replied saying: ''What the Sim report doesn't talk about is all the positives ... in the division.''

Asked about comments in the report that staff were seeking counselling and having health problems as a result of her management, she said, ''You are trying to make out that the whole division is off having counselling ... that is not the case.''

It was only a ''very small number'' of people in the division who felt that way and changes had been made in response to the issues raised in the report.

She disputed evidence from Ms Nicholls' predecessor, Ruth Mackenzie-White, who said she was ''frequently'' reduced to tears in one-on-one meetings with Ms Nicholls.

Ms Nicholls earlier said she took issue with Dr Kirkland recording meetings - which Dr Kirkland said was done to protect herself.

University director of human resources Kevin Seales, who also gave evidence yesterday, said he investigated whether the allegations of rudeness were manufactured by Ms Nicholls and other staff members and found the complaints were ''genuine''.

Asked why he did not investigate the substance of the complaints, beyond asking the staff members if they felt Dr Kirkland had been rude, Mr Seales said, ''I didn't think it was appropriate.''

He felt the allegations of rudeness against Dr Kirkland were better dealt with in an informal way. He believed at the time there must have been ''more'' reasons beyond the accusations of rudeness to explain why Dr Kirkland had issues with Ms Nicholls, but did not get any information from Dr Kirkland.

''I was quite bemused.''

Mr Seales said he felt the only way the situation could be resolved satisfactorily for Dr Kirkland was for Ms Nicholls to either be dismissed or no longer act as Dr Kirkland's manager, something he did not see as a possible outcome.

ERA member David Appleton asked whether Mr Seales felt the situation could have been resolved by asking Ms Nicholls to apologise for her handling of the situation.

Mr Seales replied saying: ''I think it had gone too far at that point. Kerry had made some very serious allegations against Virginia Nicholls and other senior staff.''

Mr Andersen asked about the appropriateness of a meeting Mr Seales held with staff in the division about giving evidence to support Dr Kirkland's case.

Mr Seales said the meeting was not intended to ''intimidate'' staff into not giving evidence and was held at the request of staff in the division who had been approached to give evidence.

Mr Seales admitted telling staff that anything they had to say would not have ''any relevance'' to the case - saying they could not speak to Dr Kirkland's claims that Ms Nicholls had manufactured complaints of rudeness against her.

In a closing statement provided to the court, counsel for the university Barry Dorking said: ''There was nothing in the director's conduct towards the applicant which could reasonably be described as bullying or which could otherwise give cause for concern.''

However, if it was found the director had acted in a bullying manner, the university was not aware of the issues.

Mr Andersen said in his closing statement that the university had made it impossible for Dr Kirkland to return to work from stress leave, by requiring a medical certificate saying the environment in the division would not be damaging to her health.

The university knew this was impossible because the Sim report found the environment in the division was ''untenable as far as the staff health and wellbeing is concerned''.

The dismissal of Dr Kirkland on the grounds of ''medical incapacity'' also did not follow its own procedures, he said.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz