Warning “unfair” following n-word and knife joke

The ERA has ruled that a nurse was unfairly disadvantaged by his employer’s actions, despite his questionable conduct.

A large Canterbury employer has been reprimanded for its unfair and hasty investigation process after the Employment Relations Authority found the organisation had given an unjustified disadvantage to one long-tenure employee.

“No good and fair employer could have made the decision the [Canterbury District Health] Board made,” stressed authority member James Crichton, who stated that employee Stephen Reader had suffered as a result of the organization’s untenable action.

“This is not a small employer; this is a large well-resourced employer with significant human resources capacity and it is difficult to see why such an employer would adopt such a cursory approach,” he added.

Crichton agreed that mental health nurse Rader had been unfairly affected by his employer’s actions when he was given both an informal warning and a subsequent written warning for the same complaint.

Last year, Reader was the subject of a two-pronged complaint made by one patient – while both parties agreed on the fundamentals, there were some notable discrepancies in the separate accounts.

In the first issue, the patient – identified only as “Patient A” – claims Reader used the “N-word” to refer to his family in a derogatory way but Reader insists it was used in an informal discussion about rap music.

In the second incident, Patient A was preparing a meal and needed a sharp knife – when Reader handed him one, he admits to saying; “Don’t do it” – a comment he accepts was inappropriate considering the patient’s history involving a stabbing.

However, Patient A’s account was more embellished and suggested that Reader repeated the observation and used actions to mimic defending himself.

Charge nurse manager Tony Keatley dealt with the verbal complaint in line with Canterbury District Health Board’s policy and engaged with both Reader and Patient A to devise a remedy that both men felt appropriate.

Ultimately, Reader sent a letter of apology to the patient and underwent additional training to prevent similar mistakes in future – but, oddly, the issue didn’t end there.

After receiving a written complaint about the same issues, the regional forensic psychiatric service manager – referred to only as Ms. Kearney – effectively overturned the initial decision and chose to re-investigate.

Accompanied by her colleague Phillip Patira, Kearney interviewed a witness to the first incident, and later Reader, before issuing the 30-year veteran employee with a written warning on the basis of serious misconduct.

While Patira did interview Patient A, Kearney never spoke to the man and Patira stressed that he had not been the decision-maker in issuing the written warning to Reader.

However, adjudicator Crichton said it wasn’t clear why Kearney came to a different conclusion following her own investigation and criticised her for failing to speak to Patient A.

“I would have thought that when confronted with competing views of two significant incidents involving a professional staff member with a blameless record, the least that an investigator would do is to interview both protagonists,” he commented.

Crichton not only ordered the warning to be removed from Rader’s previously unsullied employment record but he also confirmed that Reader has a personal grievance.

“CDHB’s actions are unjustified and have clearly caused Mr Reader disadvantage,” he wrote, referring to the anxiety and depression the employee suffered as a result of the poorly-handled investigation.

“It is difficult to understand why the Board’s investigation of the matter, looked at as a totality, was so cursory,” he said.

“The decision-maker effectively spoke to a witness to the first incident, never spoke to the complainant at all, then had one meeting with Mr Reader, took no account whatever of the fact that the matter had already been dealt with informally, and then made a decision on the spot to find both serious misconduct and identify a penalty, without giving Mr Reader any opportunity of further input into the question of penalty, as good practice would suggest.”

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