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Outbursts not wise for those in senior jobs

24 October 2018

The National Party has been having a rough time of it. Party leader Simon Bridges faced scrutiny over his spending after someone on the inside leaked MPs' expenses to the media.

In the end the biggest question was who had leaked the information. The National Party commissioned PWC to carry out an inquiry into the identity of the leaker.

PWC could not identify with certainty who had leaked the information, but the evidence they did have pointed to National MP Jami-Lee Ross. Before Bridges could announce the outcome of the investigation, Ross went on the front foot, attacking Bridges on Twitter.

Ross then held a press conference where he raised serious allegations against Bridges, such as being a corrupt politician and committing electoral fraud. Ross promised to release evidence that would prove Bridges' criminal conduct.

Bridges launched a counter-attack that reflected the fury he must have felt. Bridges called Ross a liar and accused him of defamation.

He also said: "In totality, what we've got here are lies, deception, inappropriate conduct, leaks ... I am really glad we've seen the back of this man."

Bridges was previously a senior and highly respected Crown prosecutor. It's hard to imagine anything more harmful and defamatory to Bridges than the accusations Ross flung at him.

But, while Bridges' response is understandable, it was probably not wise for someone in his position.

When people are selected for leadership of a political party, there is no position description they can look to.

Party leaders must be trusted and respected, fantastic communicators, confident with forming policy, and able to inspire people to join their party.

Perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to build a strong team out of whomever they inherit as their MPs - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Often new party leaders do not have extensive prior experience in managing people. Just like any other leadership role, people management is extremely important for a political party. Bridges will surely have learnt the truth of this in recent weeks.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also had her challenges with people management.

She has had Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri to manage through difficult issues. She has also had the huge challenge of leading a three-party coalition, as well as the Labour caucus.

How can anyone prepare for such a challenging role? It is likely that Ardern had little experience managing a group of people as complex as the Labour Party before becoming party leader.

Bridges had been a successful lawyer. Even so, the leadership required to be a successful lawyer is much less than what is needed to lead the Opposition.

A key difficulty for political party leaders is that anything they do is likely to end up on the front page. Most people's management decisions carry a much lower risk of that happening.

Poor people management is really what causes the vast majority of employment disputes.

In the employment context, employers should be careful not to promote young workers too quickly. In a famous Employment Court case involving Karl Trotter, a senior manager at Telecom (now Spark), the court warned employers about promoting employees beyond their level of competence.

Any employer who over-promotes an employee will have to bear this in mind when criticising that employee's performance.

The court found Trotter had always been considered a good performer. Yet within two weeks of Trotter having a new manager, he was dismissed for poor performance. Telecom failed to give him training or time to improve, and had in fact predetermined that he would be dismissed. Trotter won his case.

In comparison to most jobs, politics is a wild creature with its own set of rules. Young MPs can ascend the ranks to leadership roles with dizzying speed. If they do not succeed, the party can replace them just as quickly.

I cannot say with certainty that former prime ministers Sir John Key or Helen Clark would have handled Ross more tactfully than Bridges has. What I can say is that in employment disputes it is essential that employers avoid making decisions in anger.

Impassioned on-the-spot dismissals should be reserved for television, as in New Zealand they are likely to result in a legal claim.

In the real world it is much better to breathe deeply until logic replaces emotion.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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