The $ 550,000 sweetheart deal
Meet the mystery personal al assistant who won the affections of QBE boss John Neal — and cost him a hefty fine. Neal was docked $500,000 by his employer for failing to disclose a personal relationship in the workplace. The case highlights a trend in corporate Australia to crack down on office romances.
THE body language of QBE boss John Neal is obvious — Lucy O’Reilly is priceless.
Which is just as well, as the cost of falling for his personal assistant has been high.
And with their next stop being Tiffany & Co, it’s rising.
Mr Neal was docked $550,000 by QBE’s directors for not disclosing the office romance quickly enough.
The board’s choice to make its decision public has thrown a spotlight on a new trend sweeping corporate Australia — a rush to put in place rules covering the disclosure of “close personal relationships”.
Workplace lawyers argue it’s simply good governance. But leading recruiters say it is the wrong way to go. Such clauses were unheard of two years ago, said Tim Greenall of law firm Madgwicks.
“It’s now become a preva- lent trend in sharemarket-listed companies,” Mr Greenall said.
The trigger was an unfair dismissal case brought by a Westpac manager sacked after failing to ’fess up about a fling with a subordinate.
“It’s surprising it’s taken so long to take hold,” Mr Greenall said. “But it’s a difficult issue to talk about openly. It’s quite front and centre now. John Neal is a high-profile example.”
After the board of the $15 billion insurance behemoth learnt of the relationship between Mr Neal and Ms O’Reilly, she chose to leave the company.
There is no suggestion she did anything wrong. Outside the workplace they remain inseparable — unashamedly engaging in public displays of affection.
When The Sunday Telegraph came across the couple in Sydney’s CBD last weekend they enjoyed a spot of shopping and a lunch at the well-regarded eatery Fratelli’s.
Home is an expansive Elizabeth Bay unit still held in the name of Mr Neal’s wife Helen, from whom the 52year-old separated last year — before the relationship with Ms O’Reilly began.
QBE was ahead of the curve in its approach to workplace romances because it included a close personal relationships disclosure clause in its code of business ethics and conduct in 2014.
It was specifically con- cerned that conflicts of interest could arise. Mr Neal was well across the policy — he penned the introduction.
“It is not just what we say that matters, it is what we DO,” he wrote.
Mr Neal did tell the board about his relationship with Ms O’Reilly. But in its view he took too long. So, in its annual financial results published in February, it revealed it had docked him 20 per cent of what would otherwise have been a $2.76 million bonus.
At the time Mr Neal told reporters: “It’s been properly disclosed in the (remuneration) report. It’s a material amount (of money) for me, I’ve understood it, I’ve accepted it, but it was not my decision.”
And earlier this month, following the company’s annual general meeting in Sydney, he said: “I think I did what I felt I should have done at the right time, and the board had a different view.”
Madgwicks’ Mr Greenall said: “If it’s disclosed it can be managed.”
A source who has spoken to both Mr Neal and the board about the matter said the CEO of a risk-based business could be expected to err on the side of caution and therefore disclose early rather than late.
“He told them, but not soon enough in their opinion,” the source said. “And the board is always right.”
But leading recruiters say personal relationship clauses are the wrong way to go. “It’s going to create more of an issue because (workplace romances) are going to be kept secret,” Michael Page Australia managing director Adrian Oldham, said.
Mr Neal repeatedly declined to be interviewed or answer questions for this story, as did QBE.
It is not just what we say that matters, it is what we DO
The pair had a successful day shopping, including a stopover in Tiffany & Co.
Happy couple shopping in Sydney’s luxury precinct. A couple that cycles together, stays together. BICYCLE BUILT FOR TWO
A romantic lunch at upscale Fratelli Fresh. Picture: Jenny Evans LUNCH DATES