4. Changes likely at 'toxic' Human Rights Commission

Justice Minister Andrew Little says announcements on appointments to the Human Rights Commission are likely to be made within weeks. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

A damning review into the culture of the Human Rights Commission has uncovered outdated sexual harassment policies,highly dysfunctional leadership and commissioners “barely communicating with each other”.

A clear-out of the commission seems likely, with Chief Commissioner David Rutherford - singled out for some of the organisation’s problems - already confirming he will not seek reappointment.

Justice Minister Andrew Little asked retired Employment Court Judge Coral Shaw to carry out a review of the organisation in February, following Stuff’s reporting on concerns raised by a former intern about the commission’s handling of her sexual harassment complaint.

In her report, Shaw said while some sexual harassment had occurred within the organisation, it was “not prevalent or endemic”.

However, two-thirds of staff were unaware of the process for reporting sexual harassment, while the majority of those who did felt they were unsatisfactory.

Shaw also heard about historical sexual harassment complaints and other workplace problems, which in the worst instances had led to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

A history of dysfunction

The review also uncovered “deep-seated personality clashes”, with some managers afraid of raising serious complaints against board members despite their concerns.

Former and current commissioners suggested the problems were not unprecedented, detailing dysfunction going back “many years” under previous commissioners.

However, the relationship between Rutherford and his colleagues had been described as problematic since he took on the role in 2011, with other commissioners critical of his communication style.

A “trigger point” came in May last year, when Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy observed Rutherford “speaking loudly” to commission chief executive Cynthia Brophy at a public event.

“Commissioners appear to fall into one of two camps: those who more or less support the Chief Commissioner and those who more or less support the Race Relations Commissioner.”

The incident led to Brophy, Rutherford and Devoy becoming “mired in meetings and email exchanges”, and deteriorated to the point Rutherford and Devoy were now “barely communicating with each other”, while other relationships were "toxic".

“Commissioners appear to fall into one of two camps: those who more or less support the Chief Commissioner and those who more or less support the Race Relations Commissioner.”

Shaw recommended commissioners receive training on governance, while the organisation needed to implement formal governance processes.

She said Brophy’s ability to handle the organisation had been constrained by a funding freeze since 2007, with the commission shrinking from 72 full-time equivalent staff in 2015 to 40 at present.

HRC 'found wanting'

Little said it was disappointing New Zealand’s human rights body had been “found to be wanting” when it came to its own workplace culture and processes.

“I know from my experience that workplace culture starts at the top, and if those working for the commission see there are unsatisfactory relationships amongst their leaders then that translates into their confidence, their ability to work effectively in that organisation.”

The woman who had raised concerns about the commission’s handling of her sexual harassment complaint could feel vindicated by the report, he said.

Little would meet officials from the State Services Commission and the Ministry of Justice to discuss how to move ahead with the report’s recommendations.

Rutherford’s position officially expired in 2016 and Devoy’s in March this year, although they have stayed in post, while Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue finishes her role in June.

Little said he was likely to make decisions on the roles “as a matter of priority” within the next few weeks, having already spoken to the commissioners about the report.

“I think it's been quite humbling for them all, some of them said that to me, but they accept...the recommendations.”

“The commissioners that are here need to get on with the job and we need to get on with the job now to address these policies and the other recommendations - these are not things that should wait around.”

Rutherford told Newsroom the commission’s board had accepted all of the recommendations from the report, which was “confronting to read”.

“The key thing is that we acknowledge we have to work together to get policies that make it safer for, or people feel safer to raise issues and complaints, that’s the issue.”

Rutherford said he took responsibility for all the issues raised in the report as chief commissioner, including the concerns raised about his communication.

“As regards my own leadership style, that’s something that you constantly have to think about and adjust as you go through life and I’ve done that...

“The real point at the moment now is to look forward - we accept that there are issues as raised by the judge and we need to work better as a team.”

He confirmed he would not be seeking reappointment to his role, but said he was committed to improving the organisation before his departure.

“The commissioners that are here need to get on with the job and we need to get on with the job now to address these policies and the other recommendations - these are not things that should wait around.”