In a recent Employment Relations Authority decision, a tertiary education provider was reprimanded after unjustifiably dismissing one of its lecturers. The university was ordered to pay $20,000 to the employee for humiliation, loss of dignity, and injury to the feelings. The lecturer had been suffering from depression during the events leading to the dismissal, the authority said the university failed to take this into account.

The terms of the lecturer’s employment contract had been in dispute, the employee had been seeking clarification with no substantive response from his employer. Following several failed attempts for clarification, an email was sent from the employee to his supervisor asking to be dismissed – the email had threatening content and the university took the email as the lecturer’s resignation.

The authority deemed this action by the university to be an unjustified dismissal. The authority said the university’s actions seemed ‘opportunistic in the circumstances’. The authority also noted that the email was ‘at best requiring investigation into whether he intended to resign without notice or not’, followed by a disciplinary process.

Employers have a good faith obligation to be active and constructive in maintaining the employment relationship, the university was found to have failed in this respect.

The university had information regarding the employee’s mental health as he had been receiving subsidised psychological care through the employment relationship (EAP). He had also talked to his supervisor about the effect his role was having on his mental health. The authority expected this information to have been considered by the university had it conducted an investigation into the employee’s conduct.

The lecturer received $20,000 compensation for emotional harm.

Alan Knowsley
Employment Lawyer