Quantifying damages for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings is a problematic process, with rewards arguably being consistently unacceptably low. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that, in comparison to other forms of compensation, it is extremely difficult to place a monetary value on one’s dignity.

The Employment Relations Act 2000 provides a statutory mechanism for compensating for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

Hammond v Credit Union Baywide [2015] NZHRRT 6 lays out three categories that awards of this kind are presently split into:

  • For less serious breaches: awards up to $10,000.
  • For moderate breaches: awards between $10,000 and $50,000.
  • For the most serious breaches: awards in excess of $50,000.

In Hammond, the CEO of NZCU saw a picture of a cake adorned with expletives towards the company on ex-employee Ms Hammond’s Facebook. He obtained a copy of this photo and sent it to a number of recruitment firms in order to stop Ms Hammond from being employed in the future. When he found out that she was employed, he sent the picture to her employer and ceased working with her employer, leading Ms Hammond to resign. Hammond demonstrated a marked increase from previous awards made for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings. An award of $98,000 was made for loss of dignity inflicted on Hammond’s feelings. The total of damages given was a record sum of $170,000.

Over time, a number of cases have emerged that signal that the courts are raising the bar for awards of damages in this area. However, these cases have been heard in the Human Rights Tribunal, with damages awarded in the Employment Court for effectively the same thing being consistently lower. The medium band for awards in the Employment Court, as reviewed in 2016, was generally between $5,000 and $10,000. In comparison, it is not unusual for Human Rights Tribunal cases to be awarded in the tens of thousands, and in recent years, over $100,000.

The pivotal point when making awards should undoubtedly be awarding a quantity that will compensate for the harm that has been done. Consistently low awards dismiss the value placed on the rights of employees, including the right to be treated fairly by their employer.

It is evident that the principles for quantifying damages are not well established. There are no true guidelines, and the jurisprudence remains entirely unclear. However, it is undeniable that the quantum for compensatory awards for humiliation and loss of dignity is increasing, particularly in the Human Rights Tribunal. It is time for the Employment Court to get up with the times and increase the awards for humiliation and loss of dignity.

If you’ve suffered damages due to loss of dignity or injured feelings, speak to a personal grievance lawyer to make things right.