'Devastated': MediaWorks sexual assault complainant's bid declined

The report results are being shared today. Photo / Supplied
The complainant says the 90-day current legal timeframe for sexual complaints is not long enough. Photo: Supplied
A former MediaWorks employee who alleges she was sexually assaulted twice while working for the company says she is "devastated" after it declined her bid to make a late personal grievance claim - despite the broadcaster's public support of survivors.

Under New Zealand's employment law, there is a 90-day time limit for an employee to raise a personal grievance but companies can choose to allow claims well after that deadline.

Sandra* applied to MediaWorks for a late consideration of her personal grievance claim after speaking to Maria Dew as part of the QC's independent review into the workplace culture at MediaWorks.

Sandra's claim relates to her time at MediaWorks from 2009 to 2011.

Dew's report, commissioned by MediaWorks, uncovered six allegations of sexual assault, including Sandra's claims, a "boys' club" culture, bullying and harassment.

At the time, chief executive Cam Wallace apologised "unreservedly" on behalf of the company for previous inadequate responses to misconduct complaints.

He said the report's findings gave the company a "clear direction" for creating long-term change.

However, Sandra said MediaWorks' response to her grievance claim request had left her "completely devastated".

MediaWorks was approached to comment but declined to say more than what was indicated in its legal response to the woman.

Sandra decided to come forward with her story when the external review into MediaWorks was announced.

"I knew Maria Dew was really well thought of and that she'd done other reports into abuse in care and it felt like a really trusting space to go into even though it was still really challenging."

When she spoke to Dew, Sandra said she was given three options for her complaint: doing nothing, going back to the company, or going to the police.

Sandra was informed by her lawyer she was well out of the 90-day period to file a personal grievance, however she could potentially lodge a complaint if the company agreed to hear it.

"He said actually there's nothing that says they can't allow you to be heard, he said if they were to allow you to do that, then you can potentially lodge a personal grievance."

Sandra and her lawyer wrote to MediaWorks outlining the personal grievance claim and asking if the company would allow her to be heard in a mediation process to resolve the issues before potentially taking the case to the Employment Relations Authority.

In a written response, MediaWorks declined Sandra's application. Sandra said she was told she was out of time to make the complaint. It was inferred she couldn't have been incapable of pursuing the grievance claim at an earlier time as she had held other jobs since.

"We understand your client has held several positions since departing MediaWorks, as well as presently undertaking freelance copywriting work. On this basis, we cannot accept that [Sandra] has been incapable of raising a personal grievance for the past 10 years."

Furthermore, the letter suggested Sandra did not appear to be seeking further investigation, rather she appeared to want a settlement from MediaWorks.

"Unfortunately, given [Sandra] is out of time to raise her personal grievance claims (and MediaWorks does not consent to these being raised out of time), we are not agreeable to attending mediation," the letter noted.

The response also said despite the significant passage of time that had passed they would consider conducting an investigation - if the alleged workers were still employed by MediaWorks and more information was provided by the claimant.

Sandra described the response as "so degrading".

"That I would put myself through that process for nothing other than a payout, just misunderstands the entire thing and that's kind of indicative of the problem."

Initially Sandra said she had looked into making a claim within the 90 days but decided against it as she believed it would "kill" her, and one of the alleged abusers was in a powerful position.

"It's been about fear of retribution given I was threatened and given the culture was so accepting of sexual harm. I was really scared. I'm still really scared."

Now, following the Dew report, was the only time Sandra thought she had a shot at being listened to.

"My own experiences had given me no faith and their own internal investigation kind of cemented that I wouldn't be listened to."

She said the alleged assaults caused her to leave the industry and retrain in the mental health field, often specialising in helping sexual assault survivors.

"I see this in my work all the time, that people are many years on from the assault and are in no mental state to enter into legal proceedings."

Before starting her "dream job" Sandra said she was warned about the banter and "testosterone" at her workplace.

"It was the height of the GFC, and I thought I was really fortunate to have a job, and particularly this job."

However, the behaviour at the MediaWorks station left her shocked and concerned. She felt like there was no one to complain as one of the occasions occurred in front of other staff and no one intervened, Sandra said.

Some of the issues she allegedly witnessed included comments about the "f***ability" of the female staff, porn being played on a projector in the open office and repeated harassment.

At one point, Sandra says she was sent graphic sexual photos from a staff party.

"It's a period of my life that I've tried not to think about for quite a long time."

Sandra claimed she was sexually assaulted twice by MediaWorks employees. She left the industry "humiliated, really traumatised and really unwell".

One occasion allegedly occurred in front of others at an event, she said, and the other allegation occurred in the office.

Sandra said that despite being scared and angry, she warned the man responsible for the more serious of the two assaults that she would report him if it happened again.

At the time she was a junior employee and he was a high-profile radio worker.

However, instead of apologising, Sandra claims the man replied by saying that if she was going to report him she should tell him so he can "get his money's worth".

Sandra claimed the man had acted inappropriately prior to the alleged assault. One incident she recalled was the man sniffing her shoe while making sex noises behind her.

On another occasion she said he came up behind her, put her lanyard around her neck and proceeded to pull the lanyard and simulate sex with her.

"I've always had a really strong sense that what happened to me was not okay, but also that the whole environment that enabled that was not okay."

At another event with staff in 2010, the woman said she was followed to the bathroom by an intoxicated guest, who then grabbed her and attempted to drag her into the men's toilets.

When she raised this issue with a manager, Sandra said she seemed dismissive and annoyed and told her "it's not all about you" as the others weren't yet ready to leave yet.

Sandra said she wanted to dispel misinformation that she heard "over and over again" questioning why people are still affected sexual assault despite years later.

"Because that's trauma, as far as your brain is concerned, that's happening again. You aren't really 10 years on."

Top employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk told the Herald it would be uncommon for employers to agree to allow personal grievance claims after the time frame, as it would open the door to them being sued.

"The employee can request that the authority allow the grievance to be admitted "out of time". However, in these circumstances employees are required to demonstrate that there were exceptional circumstances which meant they were not able to submit their grievance earlier."

But she said in cases of sexual harassment this exception could potentially be relied on, but the applicant would need to show that the trauma continued throughout the whole period such that they could not have raised the grievance earlier.

She said in sexual harassment cases it was not at all surprising that victims need time to fully comprehend what had happened to them and then to be in a position to be able to take action.

"There is currently a private member's bill before Parliament which would extend the standard timeframe for raising a grievance in sexual harassment cases to 12 months. This would assist in cases such as this but obviously would not go far enough in this case."

For Sandra, it feels like the whole system is against her "because it is".

"This 90-day thing, it's insane to me, particularly given the training that I have and the work that I do. But how do you go about changing something so huge?"

"I'd really like to make a case for the long-term impact of trauma in sexual assault cases like mine. We accept this in criminal law, why is it different in a workplace?"

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter