Bullying in Parliament and Non Disclosure Agreements (gag orders)

As investigation is being carried out into staff bullying in Parliament there have been a number of stories giving examples of bullying. This has raised issues around the use of Non Disclosure Agreements (gag orders)

Alison Mau (Stuff): Gag orders don’t work, here’s why

Imagine something terrible happens at work – something that severely affects your mental health, something that might even drive you to quit your job – but you’re never allowed to speak of it again.

Stuff’s #MeTooNZ reporting team has heard a number of distressing stories like this in the past year. In one case that still haunts me, a young woman told us she was sexually assaulted by her boss, the head of the organisation, at a work function. She did what everyone says is “the right thing” – brought a complaint – and eventually signed a non-disclosure agreement that included a five figure penalty if she ever spoke out about her case.

She says she signed the agreement on the understanding that at least the internal investigation into her alleged assault would continue; perhaps things would change and others would be protected, she thought. But after she signed the NDA and left the organisation, the investigation was abruptly dropped. The woman would like to tell her story but she can’t afford the penalty if it were enforced.

Stuff has spoken to a number of people whose cases will be at the heart of Francis’ findings. Their stories are pretty grim; one woman talked about how she got a lawyer but couldn’t face a personal grievance case, had to resign to protect her family and her mental health, and cried in despair all the way home after she did.

Today, we’re hearing about one of the ways Parliamentary Services is ‘managing’ this distress – by locking people into silence under gag orders.

Non-Disclosure Agreements are a common way for both parties in a dispute to put the matter to bed, and move on. Or at least that’s the theory. But they’re increasingly being rumbled as overly “fair” to one side (can you guess which one?) and not very fair at all, to the less powerful individual.

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Ex-Parliament staffer accused of breaching NDA, Speaker Trevor Mallard says they shouldn’t exist

An ex-staffer was threatened with legal action after Parliament bosses suspected her of speaking out about bullying.

More than a dozen, unnamed former employees have spoken to Stuffabout a culture of bullying and harassment that affected their health and drove some out of jobs with Parliamentary Service and Office of the Clerk.

Speaker Trevor Mallard has confirmed some staff have signed non-disclosure agreements on leaving their roles at Parliament.

And he revealed one former, female employee was sent a warning letter because Parliamentary Service managers believe she broke a confidentiality agreement.

“It was in the case of an individual who was easily identifiable and knows well that she is breaching the law and that the Service responding with the background to the case would also break the law.”

However, Mallard is troubled by the use of the controversial ‘gagging’ agreements.

“It is my view that the non-disclosure agreements should not generally be used.

“The behaviours of the individuals, their managers and the Service generally should be open to scrutiny … and transparent because taxpayers funds are involved.”

Bad behaviour and bullying in Parliamentary Services should not generally be hidden.

One former Office of the Clerk worker felt she was “coerced” into signed a non-disclosure document after resigning.

She felt compelled to leave after experiencing a “very large workload”,  an “aggressive confrontation” and was left feeling “isolated and cornered. When I signed the NDA, I didn’t know what it was. I’d never heard of them and I’d never come across one before.”

Following Stuff‘s revelations, general manager Rafael Gonzalez-Montero sent an internal email to staff claiming former staff “may be breaking non-disclosure agreements” by speaking to journalists.

Late last year, Mallard launched an investigation of bullying behaviour at Parliament, headed by external consultant Debbie Francis, which is understood to be near completion.

He says staff who signed the NDA’s were not prevented from giving evidence to Francis. “It was made very clear at the beginning of the review that all staff who have worked in the Buildings since 2014 were welcome and in fact encouraged to talk to Debbie Francis.

“Their identities are completely confidential. Debbie Francis has confirmed to me that a number of individuals with those agreements have in fact made submissions and that their input has been valuable.”

What happens when Francis reports? Will details of claims where an NDA is involved be redacted or excluded?

Meanwhile, the stress of working in Parliament continues to

Thirty-seven staff have left Parliament since Christmas.

But the bullying claims have been met with silence from MPs, who rely on Service and Clerk staff to do their jobs.

While the investigation is under way they shouldn’t be commenting. I presume that some of the bullying is done by MPs.

Cultures of power and secrecy seem to be prevalent at Parliament, with Official Information Act requests for official information being increasingly difficult due to have actioned due to the efforts of both MPs and staff.