A man who urged a boycott of his employer’s products in a “flagrant” breach of a settlement clause has been ordered to pay $2000 following an Employment Relations Authority hearing.
In a just released decision, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found Paul Norton significantly breached a settlement agreement with his employer, Silver Fern Farms, by making “disparaging” comments about the company in an email.
Norton and Silver Fern Farms signed a record of settlement in June 2016 following mediation over an employment issue.
As part of the settlement, both Norton and the company were required to only speak of each other in “positive or neutral terms”.
On August 31 2016, Norton sent an email to five people, including Pareora plant manager Rob Lindsay, which included disparaging comments about the company.
Norton ended his email by calling for a boycott of Silver Fern Farms’ products.
“This part of the email is confused and rambling but it appears to be suggesting that people should not support SFF,” the decision states.
Prior to the mediation, Silver Fern Farms had become aware of similar accusations, from two other emails, which were believed to have come from Norton.
“SFF was particularly concerned to close down these types of unfounded and unnecessary allegations about it.”
That incident led to the clause in the settlement that restricted negative comments.
ERA member Peter van Keulen found Norton breached the record of settlement, and that the breach was “significant”.
“The email of 31 August 2016 contained serious allegations against SFF and it encouraged people to take action that would cost SFF revenue,” van Keulen says.
“As SFF had specifically raised concerns over similar behaviour and its desire that Mr Norton stop that behaviour, in the course of negotiating the non-disparagement clause, I conclude the breach was blatant and deliberate.”
The breach had been designed to “cause harm” to the company, he says.
“This kind of flagrant behaviour cannot be condoned.”
In determining the penalty for the breach, van Keulen found there was no quantifiable loss to the company, but there may have been some damage to its reputation.
No mitigating steps had been taken, but a statement from Norton’s wife states Norton had suffered because of his employment issues and the end of his employment with the company.
Van Keulen reduced an initial penalty, but says he was not convinced Norton had taken full responsibility for his actions.
Norton was ordered to pay $2000, $1500 of which was to be paid to Silver Fern Farms. The remaining $500 was to be paid to the ERA.
He was also ordered to pay Silver Fern Farms $1800 towards legal fees.
Norton did not attend a scheduled investigation meeting, and was advised that, without hearing evidence from him, the ERA may “issue a determination in favour of the applicant”.