Workplace Investigation Terminations Unfair dismissal

The recent decision of Jay Higgins Coles Supermarkets Australia Pty Ltd T/A Coles at the Fair Work Commission highlighted the importance for employers about being clear about the reason for the dismissal.

In this matter, Coles submitted that the explicit text messages sent by Mr Higgins resulted in a serious breach of the Code and Equal Opportunity Policy (EO Policy). Specifically, that by sending the explicit text messages to his supervisor Mr Lacey, Mr Higgins engaged in behaviour that was considered to be harassment due to its offensive and sexual nature. Coles submitted this resulted in a serious breach of his duty to treat everyone with dignity, courtesy and respect.

Mr Higgins submitted that when taking into account the context in which the text messages were sent, it could not be satisfied that he engaged in conduct amounting to sexual harassment towards Mr Lacey. Mr Higgins relied on the section of the Equal Opportunity Policy that states as follows:

“Behaviour that is based on mutual attraction, friendship and respect is not likely to be sexual harassment, as long as the interaction is consensual, welcome or reciprocated.”

Mr Higgins submitted that he and Mr Lacey had a personal friendship outside of work, and that the explicit text messages were sent on a personal level to Mr Lacey on private phones outside of work hours. Mr Higgins submitted he had sent messages of a similar nature to Mr Lacey in the past, and Mr Lacey had found such images amusing. Mr Higgins submitted that the images he sent on 5 September 2016 were not unwanted, but rather were endorsed by Mr Lacey. Mr Higgins also submitted that Mr Lacey’s response to the first text message on 5 September encouraged him to send further text messages.

When the manager responded negatively to the image of a penis in a bike chain, Mr Higgins did not sent any further images.

As a result, the commissioner found the conduct did not fall within Coles’ definition of sexual harassment, which excluded behaviour based on friendship as long as it was “consensual, welcome or reciprocated”.

But he found sending such explicit images was “clearly conduct inconsistent with the requirement of the code to treat others with dignity, courtesy and respect”.

Together with Mr Higgins’ lack of contrition and aggressive comments to his supervisor after he was warned over the images, he concluded Coles had a valid reason for dismissal and found the dismissal was not unfair.

Commissioner Simpson held that “The fact that Mr Higgins refused to acknowledge that this conduct could ever be inappropriate if sent from a private mobile phone, leads me to accept Coles’ submission that it cannot reasonably hold confidence in Mr Higgins’ ability to comply with its core values. I am satisfied Mr Higgin’s misconduct was serious.”

In this case it was found that Coles had a valid reason for the dismissal other than the initially alleged sexual harassment. Had Cole gone alone with the sexual harassment allegation the outcome may have been different.

Lesson for employers

  • Be careful when investigating matters such as sexual harassment that the behaviour is consistent with the definition of sexual harassment.
  • Be careful that organisational policies reflect the accepted or legislated definition of misconduct, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.
  • If you are unsure call in an expert –
  • Ensure that all employees undertake training in what is and what is not misconduct, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment –

Workplace Investigation Terminations Unfair dismissal

AWPTI – workplace investigation Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Misconduct investigations, bullying investigations, harassment investigations & sexual harassment investigations, complaint investigations, grievance investigations, discrimination investigations



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