Spotlight on key obligations for employers: The ‘Nutella’ case


In November 2022, the Employment Relations Authority found a hotel worker, Tracy Tahuhu, was unjustifiably dismissed and suffered unjustified disadvantage in the workplace.  A memorable fact in the case was the agreement between the parties that the worker would be paid in part with pots of Nutella and a ride-on mower.[1]

In this article, we explore why Ms Tahuhu was successful in her claims and how the employer may have acted differently if faced with the same situation again.

The facts

Ms Tahuhu was the front of house manager at The Springfield Hotel.  She raised a personal grievance after she experienced abusive behaviour from the hotel owner.  The following day, she was asked to return her hotel keys and was removed from the payroll system.

Ms Tahuhu brought her personal grievance claims to the Employment Relations Authority.

The outcome

The Authority found in favour of Ms Tahuhu.  She was awarded:

It is important to note that the Authority made its determination based on Ms Tahuhu’s evidence, as the employer did not file any documents, or attend the investigation to defend itself.

By not participating in the Authority’s process, the employer missed an opportunity to present their side of the story, clear up issues and potentially reduce liability.

Employers who are notified a claim has been raised against them should seek advice from a specialist employment lawyer as soon as possible.


The key issues

Was Ms Tahuhu unjustifiably disadvantaged by being subjected to an unsafe workplace?

Ms Tahuhu alleged she suffered ongoing bullying and abuse from the company’s director.  She provided evidence and examples of this, which included outbursts of anger in front of staff and patrons.

Though some roles operate in stressful situations, the parties are obligated to deal each other in good faith.  They are also required to be active and constructive in maintaining the employment relationship.  Abusive and bullying behaviour is contrary to this.

Further, employers who are aware that their employees feel unsafe in the workplace must take steps to address those concerns.

Was Ms Tahuhu unjustifiably disadvantaged by being paid less than the minimum wage for hours worked?

The employee was found to have been unjustifiably disadvantaged by the way in which she was paid.  This included being paid with pots of Nutella, being paid less than the adult minimum wage and being paid incorrectly for working on a public holiday.

The employer in this case breached key obligations, including:

The breaches of legislation were not considered separately, but discussed in the context of the unjustified disadvantages caused to Ms Tahuhu.

Although not discussed in the case, we query whether the employer in this case met their obligation to keep accurate wage and time records.

Was Ms Tahuhu unjustifiably disadvantaged by an unauthorised deduction from her wages?

The Authority found that the Hotel made an arbitrary deduction from Ms Tahuhu’s final pay, without consultation and contrary to the Wages Protection Act.

An employer is required to consult an employee when proposing to make a deduction in reliance on a general deduction clause in an employment agreement.

Was Ms Tahuhu unjustifiably dismissed?

The Authority found that Ms Tahuhu did not resign.  However, the employer was found to have dismissed her by blocking her from the payroll system and asking her to return her keys.

The timing of the dismissal was regarded as both retaliatory and arbitrary but most importantly unjustified and without proper regard to fair process.

The level of awards in this case demonstrates the employer’s response to receiving a personal grievance was unjustified and inappropriate.  If it had its own concerns about Ms Tahuhu’s behaviour, the employer was obligated to raise these with her, and provide her an opportunity to respond before considering a decision to dismiss.

The team at Black Door Law are experienced with resolving legal claims at mediation or the Employment Relations Authority.  For assistance with managing these claims, get in touch here.

Disclaimer:  This information is intended as general legal information and does not constitute legal advice.  If you have a specific issue and wish to discuss it get in contact with the Black Door Law team.
[1] Tahuhu v Alpine 182 Degrees Ltd (t/as Springfield Hotel) [2022] NZERA 620.