Hairdresser awarded $4000 after poor communication over parental leave

Just because an employee is out of sight for a while (on parental leave) does not absolve an employer from their duty of care.

The Employment relations Authority has ordered a Christchurch hairdressing salon to pay $4000 compensation to a woman who was “fobbed off” when she tried to return to work after parental leave.

The Authority ruled that Bridget Isherwood was compromised by her ex-employer – Synergy Hair – under the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 because the owner, Kelvyn Glading, did not sufficiently communicate with her when she was due back at work following parental leave.

Ms Isherwood reported feeling worthless, humiliated and embarrassed by the lack of communication. “I got the feeling straight away that he was fobbing me off, that no matter what he was going to totally ignore me,” she said.

Ms Isherwood started work at the salon, for Kelvyn Glading, in 2006 and took maternity leave in 2009. She said there was an “informal approach to the taking of leave”.

In her judgment, authority member Helen Doyle, said: “Mr Glading said he had always taken a relaxed approach to employees wanting to take parental leave.”

There was miscommunication as to how long Ms Isherwood was on leave for, but she contacted Mr Glading before she wished to return, to which she got a “vague and noncommittal” response.

Mr Glading “took the email as an offer to help out or assist rather than Ms Isherwood returning to her previous role”.

Ms Isherwood was later contacted by a colleague to say the Northlands branch she had mainly worked at had been sold and some of her colleagues made redundant. She assumed this meant that she had also lost her job, though Mr Glading responded that he was “intending to hold her position open for a year”.

Mr Glading “could not understand why Ms Isherwood should be awarded any amount for humiliation and distress,” Ms Doyle said in her ruling, but she “did not accept that”.

“It is clear that Ms Isherwood felt vulnerable in terms of her work as she was outside of the workplace and therefore reliant on Mr Glading to make sure that communication about matters that may impact on her continued employment were appropriate.”

It is a bit of a hollow victory for Bridget Isherwood though, after seeking more than $15,000 in compensation he $4,000 received was not even going to cover the $10,000 cost of the legal action.

Comment

Mr Glading is clearly in breach of the act. Starting off with a vague personal agreement about parental leave is not much of a foundation to work from.

With the particualr branch where Ms Isherwood mostly worked under financial pressure it was eventually closed with some redundancies. There has to be some sympathy for Mr Glading. When a business is not going well it is easy to get totally focused on trying to save it.

Communicating with an employee who had been away on parental leave for some time would not have been seen as a major priority with everything else that was going on.

That is no excuse but it is a warning to employers who like to be informal about leave arrangements that the law is the law regardless of circumstances.

An employer who takes a “casual” approach to leave is far more likely to suffer a rather formal experience before the Employment Relations Authority than an employer who sets everything out clearly in writing from the beginning.

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