Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell has been cleared of bullying allegations and permitted to return to work, despite three findings of “unreasonable conduct” against her and two further breaches of staff confidentiality.

Maxwell’s return to the Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC) will be accompanied by a “mitigation plan” until her term finishes in June – including increased monitoring and the presence of senior ministry officials in the CFFC office.

Last December, the State Services Commission hired employment law specialist Maria Dew QC to look into claims of bullying and harassment made against Maxwell, following a Newsroom investigation raised by more than a dozen former CFFC staff.

The employees had raised concerns about a culture of bullying and mismanagement led by Maxwell, with several saying their mental and physical health had suffered as a consequence.

Dew’s report, released after a more than two-month delay, is based on interviews with 16 former employees who alleged bullying or inappropriate conduct from Maxwell, eight current staff who were “largely supportive” of their boss, and the Retirement Commissioner herself.

The investigation found that the allegations made against Maxwell did not meet the legal definition of bullying or a breach of her duty to provide “good and safe work conditions”.

Dew said there was insufficient evidence to make a finding in some cases, while in others the allegations made, while true, were not assessed as unreasonable behaviour.

Dew did find unreasonable behaviour from Maxwell in three cases:

– once, when berating an employee at Friday night drinks;

-again, when repeatedly asking a separate employee the same question during a leadership team meeting and causing her to cry afterwards;

– and finally, when she criticised an employee’s work on a voiceover campaign, allegedly saying:  “You don’t dress your children up like shit to take them to daycare or school so why did you put this campaign to market?”

Separate from the bullying allegations, Dew found that Maxwell had twice breached the confidentiality and privacy of CFFC employees:

– once, when disclosing one employee’s personal relationship issues to another without their consent;

– and again, when revealing to one member of the CFFC’s leadership team that another had had their salary significantly reduced.

‘Abrasive and unpleasant’ leadership style

While the investigation had not found any other inappropriate behaviour by Maxwell that amounted to a breach of legal duty, Dew noted that five staff who resigned from the CFFC in the 12 months preceding her investigation had reported “that a material cause of their resignation was the impact on them of Ms Maxwell’s conduct in the workplace”, and a further four in the year prior.

Maxwell’s claim that many of the former employees who made complaints were unhappy due to issues about their own performance or employment terminations was not supported by the facts, Dew said.

“I am not persuaded that this explains why 16 employees, whose employment spans different periods between 2014 through to 2018, have reported similar concerns to this investigation.”

While current and former employees who took part in the inquiry said Maxwell had “at times” shown care and concern towards them, there were at least nine employees in the last three years who had found Maxwell’s leadership style “abrasive and unpleasant” – including four former members of her senior leadership team.

Dew also raised concerns about Maxwell’s treatment at concerns raised by the CFFC’s former HR manager Julia Bockett, saying she had failed to confront legitimate concerns about turnover and exit interviews raised by an experienced HR practitioner and limited Bockett’s participation at leadership team meetings “when this was likely most needed”.

Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi says a “mitigation plan” has been put in place to handle Diane Maxwell’s return. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi, who commissioned the SSC inquiry following Newsroom’s investigation, said the report’s conclusions did raise concerns about the effect of Maxwell’s behaviour on the complainants.

“My view is that conduct in every workplace should be courteous and professional and staff should be treated with respect,” Faafoi said.

Maxwell had given him an assurance that she would focus on improving the workplace environment after her return, while the CFFC’s HR policies had been updated – including the creation of a new “whistleblower” policy.

Faafoi said the Retirement Commissioner had also agreed to a mitigation plan before her return, which would include “enhanced monitoring and increased presence of senior Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment staff” in the office.

MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain would also be available to handle any staff complaints about Maxwell.

In a statement, Maxwell said she was pleased to have been cleared of bullying and was looking forward to her return to work.

“This has been an incredibly difficult period for me and my family, and I want to thank my partner and children for their enormous support.”

Maxwell said she had reflected on the points made in the report about her communication style, and would ensure it was now “professional, courteous and respectful to all staff”.

Her return to the CFFC will be brief: following Newsroom’s investigation, Faafoi confirmed Maxwell would not be reappointed when her second term expired in June 30 this year, saying it was “appropriate to go to the market” after two terms.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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