Corrupt and Fraudulent Practices
Wednesday May 23, 2018
Sunday, 11 February 2018 05:19

Human Rights Commission finance boss sexually harasses young intern, keeps job

Human Rights Commission chief financial officer Kyle Stutter faced disciplinary action for sexually harassing a young intern. Human Rights Commission chief financial officer Kyle Stutter faced disciplinary action for sexually harassing a young intern. Photo / Stuff

A young American woman cut short her internship at the Human Rights Commission after she was groped by the organisation's chief financial officer at a work party.

The commission investigated a sexual harassment complaint against Kyle Stutter, which resulted in disciplinary action. However, three months on, he remains employed there as chief financial officer.

The intern says she trusted the commission to look after her; instead, she felt the complaints process and the attempts to gag her became all about "protecting the organisation".

A young American intern who was groped by a Human Rights commission manager says she feels let down by the agency. Photo: 123RF

The commission is the country's watchdog for unlawful discrimination and racial or sexual harassment. But the former intern says it seemed ill-equpped to deal with Stutter targeting her, and it didn't acknowledge the seriousness of the incident.

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In response to questions to the commission, Stuff received two emails from a lawyer representing the senior employee. The emails warned of legal action if his privacy was breached.

Cynthia Brophy
Human Rights Commission chief executive Cynthia Brophy says it's reviewing how it deals with sexual harassment complaints against its own staff.   Photo: STUFF

Stutter himself did not respond to requests for comment. 

The 26-year-old said she had just graduated from a top US university and was looking for a place to do field work for her Master's programme when she landed an internship at the commission in August 2017.

"It's a career I want to get into in the future, so I was wildly excited about it," she said. "I'd always wanted to go to New Zealand. That was another aspect that was going to be really cool."

Julie Anne Genter
Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter says she expects the commission to be "modelling best practice" when it comes to complaints against staff.  Photo: CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF

That all changed one Friday night at a farewell party for a colleague, after work hours at a private venue. As the night wore on, her colleagues left and she planned to head home herself. Only she and Stutter remained.

At this point, Stutter began dancing with her, before advancing on her without her consent and groping her breasts and private parts, she said, despite her trying to push his hands away.

"I felt it was so severe that it was completely unacceptable and inappropriate."

She told Stutter she needed to leave and he walked her out of the venue. She got in an Uber and left.

"I sent him an email later that night, just to let him know that it wasn't OK and he should have asked permission to dance with me, to do anything with me," she said.

She felt Stutter's return email was "not an adequate response". She considered laying a complaint with police, but instead reported the incident to her immediate boss the following Monday. She was confident the commission would address it.

But a mediation demonstrated there was no specific policy to deal with the incident. 

"I would have hoped to see there was some distinction drawn at some point, where something like this would be handled differently to someone just making an inappropriate comment."

She added there should have been increased transparency around the matter. "The fact there is so much emphasis on confidentiality in their policies can make it really isolating.

"It wasn't until the complaint got to the highest level that I felt it wasn't so much about me any more, it was about protecting the organisation, and them hitting all the right points that they had to hit legally. Ultimately I felt it came down to making sure they could move on as an organisation."

The result of the mediation was that Stutter sent her a written apology and had to undertake anti-harassment counselling. He also received a formal warning and had the incident recorded on his personnel file, to be removed after three years if there were no further complaints against him.

Stutter sent out an email to all of the Commission's employees, naming the intern and saying what happened was not in keeping with the Commission's values. He also apologised and said he was deeply sorry. He advised staff to ask him directly for his account of events if they had any questions.

The intern's mother in the US said she was devastated to hear of the incident.

"This is not just a sexual harassment, where the perpetrator says inappropriate things or touches someone on the hair or back, but it was an attack," she said.

"[Stutter] waiting until the rest of the party had left, advancing without permission, a full-out groping of the private parts, and following her out the door."

She said her daughter was in a vulnerable situation, and taken advantage of by a "very senior staff member".

"She was an intern from a university in another country, so she had no direct university support or local university friends. Most importantly, she was an intern away from her family, boyfriend and friends who would be able to support her, or protect her, which this person knew."

"No mother wants to get the call in the middle of the night from a sobbing daughter on the other side of the world who is trying to process what happened, blaming themselves, wondering what they should have done to prevent the attack."

The young woman added that she would support an independent inquiry into sexual harassment cases at the commission. She has since remained in New Zealand to finish field work for her Master's programme. 

Chief executive Cynthia Brophy said the organisation was reviewing its internal processes for dealing with sexual harassment and "if there is anything we can improve on we are keen to make sure this happens".

"I have a high degree of trust and confidence in the professionalism of all of our staff and can confirm that there is no current complaint outstanding against anyone in the Human Rights Commission."

The complaint against Stutter isn't the only sexual harassment complaint against the commission's staff in the past five years.

Figures released to Stuff under the Official Information Act showed the organisation had investigated three sexual harassment complaints against three separate staff members dating back to 2013.

Each of the complaints progressed to an investigation, with Stutter's the only case that resulted in disciplinary action. Two employees resigned before their investigations were completed.

It is understood the complaint against Stutter was dealt with exclusively by Brophy and human resources, and none of the organisation's four commissioners were aware of it until the intern had left.

Chief commissioner David Rutherford said, "the Human Rights Commission takes this matter very seriously".  

"It is an employment matter requiring us to respect all of the rights of our employees. We have confidence in how our chief executive is dealing with this matter."

Stuff

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