Protecting Public-Facing Employees: The Case of the Associate Professor Dr. Siouxsie Wiles

July 10th, 2024 - Barbara Buckett
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If Dr. Wiles wanted to make an example of the way the university treats academics, she achieved this in the landmark case of Siouxsie Wiles v The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland.

The court was unimpressed by the university’s “insufficient and slow” regard to serious safety issues and risks Dr. Wiles faced from the COVID-19 backlash to government imperatives due to her public-facing role within the university. That failure, the court said, disadvantaged Dr. Wiles in the context of a personal grievance.

During the pandemic, Dr. Wiles played an essential role in providing evidence-based commentary. Her employment role described her as a science commentator. The university the court said had a public role as a critic and conscience of the society of which academic staff were key and the university derived benefit and value from having its academic staff play such a public role.

The case, whilst not legally novel, is a wake-up call for institutions such as the university that promote public-facing aspects of employment to protect its employees from likely or foreseeable harm and damage such as Dr. Wiles experienced.

Whilst the Court gave the University the benefit of the doubt that it did not act with malice in its approach to Dr. Wiles it was critical of its approach, describing it as at times aggressive.

In restating the law underpinning employment relations the court said the obligations of “good faith” were infused throughout those obligations.

The court said that those obligations were wider than just the implied terms of trust and confidence.

Good faith, the court said, required “active and constructive engagement in establishing and maintaining a productive employment relationship in which the parties are responsive and includes the concepts of co-operation, openness and absence of ulterior purpose or motivation.

Good faith, the court said, is flexible and contextual.

In this sense the university it would appear didn’t help itself by creating tangential issues to deflect and transfer its responsibility to Dr. Wiles. Arguing for example she chose to put herself in the situation to create her own brand “brand Siouxsie” was not in keeping with the university’s good faith obligations.

In doing this the university had seriously underscored its good faith obligations to Dr.Wiles.                

The university also had contractual obligations to take all reasonably practicable steps to keep its employees, such as Dr. Wiles safe at work and to actively avoid or minimize harm which includes mental harm and distress caused by hazards in the workplace.

So, what are the takeaways from the case?

The protection of public facing employees (not just academics) is a legal obligation.

Employers of public facing employees must actively support and safeguard those in this position. Failure to do so will risk penalties and may be costly in both fiscal and human.

The university was probably lucky that Dr. Wiles was, as the court said “resilient and committed”; but she was let down. The university instead of being her ally and support became as she described it “like the enemy”.

It was accepted by the university that she  was “the innocent victim of a relentless campaign of vile hate and vitriol from a sector of society strongly opposed to lockdowns and vaccinations mandates something no employee should be subjected to for doing their job.”

All employers need to:

  • Get expert advice on safety and wellbeing. Not just legal advice. 

  • Regularly conduct risk assessments. This includes risks relating to online harassment, physical safety and mental health. Social media is a work-related medium, it cannot be seen in isolation.

  • Implement security measures such as safety training, ensuring safe communication channels and offer expert and professional counselling and support.

  • Establish clear policies regarding public engagement, social media and communication with the media.

  • Provide guidelines on how to handle online abuse, misinformation and controversial topics.

  • Encourage responsible communication while respecting academic freedom.

  • Create support networks or communities to connect employees with others facing similar challenges.

  • Organise forums, workshops and discussions on effective academic communication and dealing with public scrutiny.

  • Provide media training to assist in how to convey messages in a safe way. 

  • Provide legal assistance and support in defamation, cyberbullying and other issues arising from public engagement.

  • Ensure employees know their rights and legal obligations.

  • Acknowledge the employee’s contribution through accolades and media coverage.

  • Recognize the additional work in public-facing engagements (offer flexible working arrangements or extended deadlines to recognize the added responsibility). 

  • Provide mental health support through counselling and pastoral care such as work-life balance considerations.

  • Engage with media outlets to ensure direct accurate and responsible reporting.

  • Publicise responsibly the role of the academic in public debate and contribution to society.

So, this article is to celebrate Dr. Wiles and thank her for not only her invaluable contribution and essential role to our community during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic which led to her being recognized as New Zealander of the Year but now her contribution to an important issue for not only her workplace but workplaces in general that employ public-facing employees. We recognize the cost to her in doing so.

Listen to Barbara Buckett talking to RNZ on the topic

More on this in the NZ Herald

Note: BuckettLaw takes no responsibility for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of our articles. Any views expressed or comments made in an article are the writers option only. The content in our articles does not constitute legal advice. If you need legal or expert advice you should obtain specific advice about your case or matter from a professional. For legal advice based on your individual situation please contact us to speak with one of our expert lawyers.

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Barbara Buckett

Barbara Buckett is a highly experienced senior employment lawyer with over 35 years of practice in New Zealand. She provides expert advice on all areas of employment law and has a proven track record of delivering excellent results for clients. Barbara has extensive experience in resolving workplace issues and is an experienced litigator. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, working out, and fine wine and dining with friends.

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