Unfair Dismissal Fair Work Commission Recently

The recent case of Amanda Olesen v Needlework Tours Pty Ltd illustrates some importance considerations for employers when dismissing employees

In this case, applicant Ms Olesen expressed an intention to start own business in meeting with respondent. Ms Olesen used social media and business networking sites to promote new business.  The respondent Needlework Tours stated that they believed applicant was working for new business during work hours.

The Commission found no evidence that suggested that applicant was operating own business or not working as directed and therefore found no valid reason for termination.  In evidence the applicant contented that her employment was terminated via text message and was not notified of reason until after termination and was also not given the opportunity to respond to reason for dismissal.

The Commission considered the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code and found that the fraud allegations were without substance, It also held that a lack of HR expertise and small size of business no excuse for failure to give applicant opportunity to respond

Commissioner Ryan held

“Having taken into account each of the matters referred to in paragraphs (a) to (g) of s.387 and being satisfied that there are no other relevant matters needing to be considered under s.387(h) the Commission decides that the dismissal of Ms Olesen from her employment with the Respondent was harsh and unjust and unreasonable. It was harsh because Ms Olesen had not engaged in the alleged misconduct. It was unjust because Ms Olesen was denied procedural fairness by Mr Laughlin and was given no opportunity to defend herself. It was unreasonable because it was the result of a significant exercise of prejudging an outcome without making any reasonable attempt to apply the principals of a fair go all round.”

Lesson for employers

  • In matters of fraud, potential fraud a careful investigation is recommended to ensure that the misconduct occurred and that the employer is in possession of sufficient evidence to support their claims.
  • Procedural fairness and the right to respond to allegations should be considered to be ‘set in stone’
  • A professional and timely investigation by an expert can save time, money and stress
  • If in doubt call an expert – http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

Unfair Dismissal Fair Work Commission Recently

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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http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
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Misconduct Investigation Allegation Letters. When AWPTI conducts an investigation we provide all the documentation including letters of allegation to our clients however I am often asked “Should we provide some sort of letter or email with the allegations?”
The answer is always YES.

Why: Recently I published an article about allegation letters, procedural fairness and why it is essential…Read more

In the case at the FWC of K v K&S Freighters Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 1555 (24 March 2016) an employee of 30 years was dismissed over misuse of a fuel card.  Commissioner Bissett found there was a valid reason for dismissal but there had been was a lack of procedural fairness.

The commission was satisfied the applicant sent freight without consignment notes, sent freight without charge and used a fuel card while he was on annual leave. Mr Kirkbright’s argument that this was how it had always been was not satisfactory.

Lack of procedural fairness

The Commissioner found that Mr Kirkbright was not advised that his conduct was an issue or were being investigated. In addition he was not provided with an opportunity to consider what was being alleged or the opportunity to respond.

The commission also considered that the HR department should have been better prepared for the meeting where Mr Kirkbright was dismissed:

“Whilst Mr K’s language in the meeting of 17 August 2015 leaves much to be desired; he displayed an appalling lack of respect for his manager and co-worker and this was the first time he had been confronted with the allegations. His reaction was not outside the realm of possibilities and should have been foreseen. The human resource manager, if she had not, should have walked the HR officer through what to do in such a circumstance.”

“The meeting should have been halted, Mr K given the allegations in writing and he should have been given an opportunity to respond either in writing or in a meeting at a future date (which could have been in a couple of days).”

The Commission found that the lack of procedural fairness and long service of the employee were both relevant.

On providing an opportunity to respond the commission said:

“In Crozier v Palazzo Corporation Pty Ltd… the full bench said:  As a matter of logic procedural fairness would require that an employee be notified of a valid reason for their termination before any decision is taken to terminate their employment in order to provide them with an opportunity to respond to the reason identified…”

Mr Kirkbright sought reinstatement but it was considered inappropriate. The matter was set down for compensation to be considered.

Later in Kirkbright v K&S Freighters Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 2743 (4 May 2016) the Commission ordered compensation in the amount of $11,624.25 plus superannuation.

Misconduct Investigation Allegation Letters – Lessons for employers

  • Procedural fairness cannot be ignored, it requires an employer to provides any employee accused of misconduct with a chance to respond and put their side or version of events forward before any final decision is made.
  • Don’t take short cuts, it’s not worth it in the long run.
  • If you are not sure what to do, get help, call an expert.

As I mentioned when we conduct investigations we ensure that all the documentation is legally complaint and that procedural fairness is afforded. If you wish to conduct investigations into misconduct internally I recommend;

  1. Have your people, HR professionals or managers trained. AWPTI can provide 1 and 2 day investigation training courses for HR professionals or managers – Read more
  2. If you have an understanding of the investigative process make sure all your documentation is complaint. For those that wish to DIY we have created an Investigation Document Toolbox – Read more
  3. Read our TOP TEN tips for workplace Investigations Misconduct, Complaints and Grievances – Read more

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

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
http://awpti.com.au/training/

 

Unfair dismissal serious misconduct workplace investigation – When considering dismissing an employee for serious misconduct, employers must bare in mind the following;

  1. Does the alleged behaviour that resulted dismissal reach the threshold of serious misconduct
  2. Have you conducted an investigation – do yo have the evidence to support the decision to terminate?
  3. Does the punishment fit the crime?

More details of another case there the issue of the punishment fitting the crime was considered by the FWC – http://awpti.com.au/punishment-must-fit-crime/

More details about summary dismissal can be found here – http://awpti.com.au/summary-dismissal-2/

Recently at the fair Work Commission, the depot manager at an Australian courier company was unfairly sacked after he was accused of being responsible for the breach of a worldwide embargo on the J.K. Rowling book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Fair Work Commission has found.

The FWC heard that XL Express Pty Ltd sacked the depot manager for serious misconduct last November when he was told that the delivery of embargoed J.K. Rowling books a day early had damaged the company’s reputation. XL Express blamed the Brisbane depot manager for the embargo breach, a claim he denied.

Describing the delivery of embargoed freight as “the pinnacle of its operations”, the company said a November 17, 2016 embargo on the J.K. Rowling novel was breached on November 16.

Under cross-examination, the company agreed it had not lost its contract with the book distributor and had not been financially penalised for the embargo breach. It claimed a forklift driver removed the embargo consignment from the embargo area and that another staff member removed the consignment note from an embargo file. The depot manager was accused of failing to ensure staff followed set procedures for embargo releases.

The depot manager told the FWC that the error with the sorting and handling of the consignment note happened on November 15 when he was on leave.  He said he was unaware that someone had “accessed his office, gained access to the box where the embargo labels were kept and also retrieved the con-note from the embargo con-notes and had labelled the freight”.

He said no fewer than six people had taken these actions on the day he was absent from the depot.

The commission heard that the depot manager claimed the error that resulted in the embargo breach on November 16 “was not through any fault on his part”.

The depot manager, who had been employed from May 2008 until late November last year, was dismissed on the grounds of serious misconduct after a meeting in which he was also accused of workplace bullying. He said it was the first time the allegations had been put to him. He was also accused of wrongly claiming he had received training in the company’s anti-bullying procedures.

Fair Work Commission deputy president Ingrid Asbury’s judgment said XL Express had no documents and called no evidence to support the bullying allegations.

The depot manager told the commission he was not paid his long service leave entitlements because his job was terminated for misconduct.

In finding the dismissal was unfair, Deputy President Asbury ordered XL Express to pay the sacked employee $48,432 in wages, less tax and $6555 in superannuation contributions.

The commission found that although it was not a valid reason for his dismissal, the depot manager’s responsibility for depot operations “meant that he had a role in the series of events that led to the embargo breach”.

It said the dismissal was harsh because it was disproportionate to the misconduct in relation to the embargo breach.

It is important to consider the decision in Rode v Burwood Mitsubishi where is was held a valid reason must be “defensible or justifiable on objective analysis of relevant facts”.

 

Summary dismissal – Do you have the grounds

In light of the  XL Express Pty Ltd decision at the Fair Work Commission, I think it’s time to review Summary Dismissal. (More about XL Express here – http://awpti.com.au/unfair-dismissal-serious-misconduct-workplace-investigation/

Summary dismissal is dismissal without notice. It does not require advance notice to the employee and wages are only paid to the time of dismissal. An employer has a legal right to summarily dismiss an employee without notice for serious misconduct or other conduct which justifies such dismissal.

Employers should always think very carefully and thoroughly consider the options before making a decision to immediately or “summarily” dismiss an employee. For summary dismissal to be lawful there must have been a breach by the employee of either an express or implied term of the contract of employment that is serious enough to necessitate an employer to undertake an action of summary dismissal.

I recommend before summary dismissal action is taken employers do the following:

  • Investigate the matter carefully to ensure that you have enough information and evidence upon which to make your decision. If the presence of the subject employee in the workplace causes concern consider suspending them until the conclusion of the investigation.
  • Review the employee’s record. Does this person have a long history with the company? Is this person a first or repeat offender? These are matters that could be taken into account.

Summary dismissal of a long standing employee with a good or unblemished record can be problematic.
Your options should be carefully considered

  • Review your options. Would dismissal with notice be a better option? What are other options – demotion, counselling or training?
  • Don’t allow the fact that you may save some money by summarily dismissing an employee to affect your judgement. This course of action could be more costly in the long run.
  • Resist the temptation to ‘make an example’ of instances of employee negligence with summary dismissal. It is always best to ensure that disciplinary action is fair and thorough and that the outcome is proportionate to the conduct that has occurred.

Here are some cases that highlight differing views of summary dismissal:

In Bruce v AWB Ltd [2000] FCA, the Federal Court of Australia stated that mere misconduct is not considered as sufficient grounds to warrant immediate dismissal. For a summary dismissal to be lawful the employee’s conduct must be judged serious enough that summary dismissal is the only option.

In Concut Pty Ltd v Worrell [2000] HCA 64, Kirby J stated that it is “only in exceptional circumstances” that an employer is entitled to dismiss an employee summarily. His Honour went on to state that generally, acts of dishonesty of similar conduct that destroys the mutual trust between the employer and employee fall within the class of conduct which would allow a lawful summary dismissal.

In Smith v Aussie Waste Management Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 1044 (Smith), the FWC ruled that swearing at a managing director during a heated phone call was not sufficient cause for summary dismissal. The FWC ruled that the conduct was not ‘sufficiently insubordinate’ for him to be dismissed because the conversation was not overheard by other employees, meaning it had not undermined the managing director’s authority in the workplace.

On the other hand:

In John Pinawin t/a RoseVi Hair Face.Body v Edwin Domingo [2012] FWAFB 1359 the Full Bench accepted that the summary dismissal of a hairdresser whose work performance was adversely affected by his drug use was fair, but warned the same conclusion would not necessarily be reached in all cases of out-of-hours misconduct – an issue on which the Full Bench made some interesting observations that pertain to all employers.

In Lloyd & Co Pty Ltd v Shuttle ([2016] FWCFB 144) the employee had sent a series of emails to other staff members that were highly critical and disparaging of the managing director.

The Commission ruled that the managing director’s feelings of betrayal as a result of the employee’s personal hostility and disloyalty were reasonably held. The managing director had direct evidence of disloyalty in the form of the emails

As you can see summary dismissal is not cut and dry, I recommend careful and expert investigation of misconduct incidents that could result in summary dismissal.

The peace of mind of getting it right outweighs the cost of an expert investigation.

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from a suitably qualified and experienced workplace investigator.

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

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
http://awpti.com.au/training/

FWC High income threshold increases – Changes to high income threshold and compensation caps and filing fees

Commencing today, (1 July 2017) the high income threshold in unfair dismissal cases increases to $142,000 and the compensation limit is now $71,000. The maximum compensation cap is set at 26 weeks or 50% of the high income threshold

The filing fee for dismissal, general protections and anti-bullying applications made under sections 365, 372, 394, 773 and 789FC of the Fair Work Act 2009 will increase to $70.60

It is important to remember that an employee earning over the threshold of #142,000.00 can still make an unfair dismissal application if;

  1. They are covered by a modern award

    A modern award is a legal document that sets out minimum wages and conditions for an industry or occupation. Awards cover things like rates of pay, overtime, penalty rates and allowances. The conditions in awards apply on top of the minimum conditions in the National Employment Standards.
  2. If they are covered by an enterprise agreement
    An enterprise agreement is a legal document that sets out the conditions of employment between a group of employees and their employer.Enterprise agreements can be made by an employer with a group of employees, or by more than one employer with groups of employees.In some cases, enterprise agreements can be made by an employer and a union for a new enterprise before any employees start working for the business.

If you are not sure if your employees are covered by the unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work Act take the test at the Fair Work Commission web site – https://www.fwc.gov.au/content/rules-form/unfair-dismissal-application

Recent decisions about the high income threshold can be found in this article – http://awpti.com.au/fwc-high-income-threshold-decisions/

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

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
http://awpti.com.au/training/

 

 

Unfair dismissal hearing participation – As an employer facing an unfair dismissal application it is important that you participate in the process, you can’t argue against a judgement if you are not presents at the hearing. The Commission will still proceed with the matter in the absence of the respondent.

Melim v Construction Staff NSW

TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT – performances.394 Fair Work Act 2009 – application for relief from unfair dismissal

The Applicant was employed as a permanent full-time concrete patcher. On 22 July at the request of his supervisor, the Applicant commenced leave due to a “shortage of work”. However, he received no further call.

After a number of calls, including to the CFMEU, he was offered work on a job at Mascot. This was done by a director of the employer. He commenced work on 24 August 2016. On 31 August, the Applicant stated that he had cleaned up some unset concrete, as instructed.

On 1 September, he was told by the foreman and subsequently the director, on the telephone, that he was no longer required. The Applicant says that he was given no proper explanation for his dismissal other than an email that attached a separation certificate which referred to “shortage of work”. The Applicant denies that his work on 31 August was in any way substandard.

The respondent submitted an F3 form stating applicant was terminated on 31 August 2016 because he refused to clean up unset concrete as instructed by his supervisor.

Subsequently the respondent did not participate in the hearing.

The Commission found no valid reason for dismissal, no notification of a valid reason or an opportunity to respond. The Commission found the termination was harsh and unjust and ordered compensation of $12,433.60.

Link to case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2017fwc2207.htm

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

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
http://awpti.com.au/training/

 

 

 

FWC High Income Threshold Decisions – to satisfy the provisions of the Fair Work Act and to be able to claim relief via the Fair Work Commission an employee must earn under the High Income Threshold, currently set at $138,900.00 per annum.

FWC High Income Threshold Decisions
Scarborough v Sandfire Resources NL t/a Sandfire Resources NL

TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT – high income thresholdmodern award coveragess.382, 394 Fair Work Act 2009

This decision concerns an application made by Mr Nigel Scarborough for an unfair dismissal remedy under s.394 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (the Act) in respect of his employment by Sandfire Resources NL T/A Sandfire Resources NL (Sandfire).

Mr Scarborough argues that his employment was covered by the  Manufacturing and Associated Industries and Occupations Award 2010 (manufacturing award) or the Mining Industry Award (mining award) and therefore he was protected from unfair dismissal under s.382(b)(i) of FW Act

Sandfire contended that Mr Scarborough was not protected from unfair dismissal on the basis that his annual rate of earnings exceeds the current high income threshold and the applicant’s employment is not covered by a modern award or enterprise agreement

The Commission held that the respondent business did not operate in the manufacturing industry, but in the mining industry, and so the applicant was not covered by the manufacturing award – held that the applicant was a supervisor, but that supervisors are not covered by the mining award [Fry], [McMillan and Norman]

The commission held that applicant was therefore not a person protected from unfair dismissal, as he was above the high income threshold and was not covered by and enterprise agreement or award, the application was dismissed.

Link to case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2017fwc947.htm

FWC High Income Threshold Decisions
St George v Gold Coast Turf Club Ltd t/a Gold Coast Turf Club

TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT – high income threshold – modern award coverage – ss.382, 394 Fair Work Act 2009

The decision arises from an application by Mr Dale St George for an unfair dismissal remedy pursuant to section 394 of the Fair Work Act 2009 Mr St George was the Chief Executive Officer of the Gold Coast Turf Club Limited.

The Turf Club objected to Mr St George’s application on the basis that it alleged that Mr St George’s earnings were more than the high income threshold.

The Turf Club submitted that Mr St George is not covered by the Award on a number of bases:

  • The employment agreement entered into explicitly states that the position of CEO is considered to be Award free;
  • The Award does not cover employers in the Racing industry;
  • The Turf Club does not fall within the definition of “Club” in the Award; and
  • The classification definitions submitted do not apply to a manager at CEO level.

Mr St George submitted that he is covered by the Award because:

  • The Turf Club is a “Club” as defined in the Award;
  • The principal purpose of the position held by Mr St George falls within the classification definition of “club manager” in the Award and, more particularly, a ‘Level G manager’; and
  • The Award contemplates high income club managers by the inclusion of provisions exempting certain managers from Award entitlements where they earn more than 50% above the minimum.

The Commission found respondent (Turf Club) operates for benefit of members, however, it was not not persuaded that a club that promotes and holds racing events is conducted for the benefit of the community.

The Commission was not satisfied that the respondent is a ‘Club’ within definition of the Award and held that even if wrong in that conclusion, the respondent is not covered by operation of the exclusions in coverage of the Award.

The Commission not satisfied applicant was covered by modern award and therefore the applicant was a person protected from unfair dismissal, the application was dismissed.

Senior Deputy Commissioner Drake stated

“I am satisfied and find that the sum of Mr St George’s annual rate of earnings is not less than the high income threshold. It is agreed that no enterprise agreement applies to Mr St George. I am not satisfied that Mr St George is covered by a Modern Award. Therefore, I am satisfied that Mr St George is not a person who was protected from unfair dismissal at the time of his termination of employment. On this basis his application must be dismissed.”

Link to case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2017fwc451.htm

FWC High Income Threshold Decisions
Wigglesworth v Warringah Plastics P/L

TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT – high income threshold – ss.332, 382, 394 Fair Work Act 2009

Mr Michael Wigglesworth (Applicant) applied for an unfair dismissal remedy pursuant to s.394 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Act). The Applicant was employed in the position of Business Development and Accounts Manager for the states of Victoria and South Australia with Warringah Plastics Pty Ltd (Respondent) commenced that position on 1 July 2015.

The Applicant was advised of the dismissal by letter on 8 July 2016. It was not in dispute that the Applicant’s employment was terminated by the Respondent on 8 July 2016 effective immediately.  Although the dismissal was effective immediately, the Termination Letter made it clear that the Applicant would receive one months’ pay in lieu of notice.

The Termination Letter provided that “our decision is based solely on a commercial basis in that the business you brought across from Kema Plastics is not sufficient to justify a full time Account Manager and with no significant new business generated since your commencement, we have no option other than to server our ties”.

The Respondent maintained that at the time of the his dismissal, Mr Wigglesworth’s employment was not covered by a modern award or enterprise agreement, and he earned more than the high income threshold and was therefore is unable to make an application for an unfair dismissal remedy. The Respondent also contended that Mr Wigglesworth was not covered by a modern award or that no enterprise agreement applied at the time of his dismissal, this matter was not in dispute.

The Commission satisfied that at the time of the applicant’s dismissal, his guaranteed salary was $120,000.00, he received a vehicle allowance of $15,000.00 and that other amounts sought to be included by respondent do not form part of the sum or amount contemplated by s.382(b)(iii) of Fair Work Act

The Commission found as a result that the total of $135,000.00 was less than the high income threshold and that the applicant is a person protected from unfair dismissal.

The respondent’s jurisdictional objection dismissed, the application was to proceed in the normal way.
Link to case- https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2016fwc7555.htm

In the subsequent unfair dismissal hearing Commission found that Mr Wigglesworth’s dismissal was unfair inn that it was was both unjust and unreasonable to dismiss him without procedural fairness.  Reinstatement not sought compensation of $7,993.44 was awarded.
Link to case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2017fwc1266.htm

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

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/
http://awpti.com.au/training/

 

Email misuse dismissal fair

Email misuse dismissal fair – Email and misconduct – unfair dismissal case confirms the importance of trust and confidence

Where conduct is so poor that it destroys the trust and confidence essential in an employment relationship, the FWC will find that dismissal is not unfair.

The case of Georgia Sologinkin v Cosmetic Suppliers Pty Ltd T/A Coty [2017] FWC 1838 serves as a warning about:

  • Sending an email to the wrong person.
  • Making disparaging or offensive comments in emails
  • Being careful when wording and sending emails.

Accidentally sending an email to the wrong person is not an uncommon event, especially if the recipient is the email is the target of comments best left unsaid or unfiltered thoughts.

Ms Sologinkin employee with a long and previously unblemished employment record did just that and it did not end well

Senior Deputy President Hamberger found against Ms Sologinkin’s unfair dismissal application. In considering the matter, the Commissioner affirmed the importance of trust and confidence in the employment relationship and that it can be destroyed by one act of sufficient gravity

The email

Ms Sologinkin worked for Cosmetic Suppliers since May 2000, as a junior sales representative then Team Leader and then State Sales Manager.  She had never been subject to any issues of misconduct.

On 9 November 2016, she sent an email described as “intemperate and inappropriate” to the Customer Services Team describing them as “totally incompetent”.

As set out in the judgment:

“On the same day, the applicant composed an email to a friend of hers who had commenced working as a contractor for the respondent.  In this email, she made a number of disparaging ‒ and, in at least one case, highly offensive ‒ comments about some of the clients her friend would be dealing with.  This included a reference to one of the clients’ ethnicity and national origin.  The email included the email addresses of the clients.”

As she had intended, the email was sent to her friend and colleague.  Unfortunately, it was also accidentally sent to the clients.  Once she became aware she had sent the email to the clients, she made attempts to retrieve it, her attempts failed.

Upon receiving the email, one of the named clients tried, without success, to contact the employee by telephone.  He then rang the sales director and subsequently sent an email about the matter which said there “needs to be a consequence to this stupidity, await your advice”. 

The following day the client stated that they would no longer deal with any company represented by Ms Sologinkin; adding to this, another disparaged client did the same.

The employer issued a letter to Ms Sologinkin requiring her to attend a disciplinary meeting on 14 November 2016.  The letter advised Ms Sologinkin that sending the email to the clients was highly inappropriate and a breach of the employer’s Code of Conduct and furthermore could amount to serious misconduct. That meeting did not occur as Ms Sologinkin was on work-related stress/sick leave and unfit for work until 18 November.

The employer requested a written response from Ms Sologinkin to the allegations in the letter by close of business 15 November 2016.  To this Ms Sologinkin responded with a detailed email that cited a number of matters, including that her reasons for the mistake include that she had not slept well before the day of the email. She further said she was distracted, having had two others emails open at the same time and was handling complaints about the customer service team’s inability to perform their duties.

She conceded she had found it difficult to cope with her role ‘for some time’ and had been receiving medical treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder since 2015.

In further background, the employee had been placed on an informal performance improvement plan due to failure to meet key performance indicators for sales, and poor time management, which she said was due to a lack of management support and organisational changes. By the end of 2015 her performance had improved and she was no longer on a plan.

The employer considered her explanation but decided to dismiss her, concluding that the seriousness of the conduct was such that the trust and confidence necessary in an employment relationship had been lost.

SDP Hamberger found in at least one case the employee made ‘highly offensive’ remarks. One remark included a reference to a client’s ethnicity and national origin. SDP Hamberger accepted that the email was sent by mistake but given she occupied a management position she must bear the ultimate responsibility for her actions. He found the company had a valid reason to terminate and had conducted a fair investigation into the matter

SDP Hamberger accepted that there was a valid reason for termination and that even though the employee had;

  • a lengthy period of service with the employer,
  • an unblemished employment record
  • was contrite,

Overall the gravity of this misconduct, coming from someone whose job was to “manage relations with key customers”, was such that dismissal was not harsh.

The Commissioner held:

“…whatever the explanation as to how it happened, the ultimate responsibility must be borne by the applicant.  The email not only had the potential to but clearly did in fact damage the respondent’s reputation and its relations with its clients.” 

Not all mistakes destroy trust and confidence

Termination of employment is never a step to be taken lightly by an employer.  A longstanding employee with an unblemished employment record will, in many circumstances, be able to successfully argue that a termination was harsh and that other disciplinary outcomes falling short of termination should have been actively considered and applied.

However, where conduct is so damaging to the business and the trust and confidence necessary in an employment relationship, the Commission will be more willing to find that dismissal was not unfair and an appropriate outcome.

Every unfair dismissal case turns on its facts; it is entirely possible that if the employee was not in a key sales role, where relationships with clients are pivotal, that the outcome may have been different.

It is also an important and timely reminder to be careful and double-check the recipients list of any email that is sent.  And the tone of the email – if in doubt don’t press send

Link to the case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2017fwc1838.htm

AWPTI – workplace investigations 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

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations into bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and other forms of misconduct.

You can contact me on 02 9674 4279 or phil@awpti.com.au

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigators.

 

Anti-bullying laws disciplinary process

Anti-bullying laws disciplinary process – Anti-bullying laws might be used by employees facing a potentially adverse disciplinary process to delay or halt it.

Anti-bullying vs disciplinary process: Fair Work Commission asked to find the balance

A recent Fair Work Commission case demonstrated an inventive way in which the FWC’s anti-bullying jurisdiction can be used by employees facing disciplinary proceedings. It may have opened a can of worms for employers.

In Lynette Bayly [2017] FWC 1886, the FWC issued an interim order preventing her employer from taking any further actions to finalise an investigation into the conduct of an employee or to impose any disciplinary sanction on the employee arising from the investigation or to terminate the employment of the employee.

Ms Bayly had made a section 789FF “stop bullying” application to the Commission alleging she had been subject to bullying at work.  The alleged bullying included the investigation by the employer into her conduct.

Despite the application, the employer continued the investigation and, as part of that process, advised her that draft findings had been made. Ms Bayly was then stood down and directed to attend a meeting to give her response to the draft findings. The investigation would then be concluded and any disciplinary outcomes of the investigation determined.

Ms Bayly’s lawyers wrote to the employer indicating she was unfit for work for a period that extended beyond the date of the proposed meeting.  They sought agreement from the employer that it would not require her to provide a response, attend a meeting or impose any disciplinary sanction in relation of the allegations under investigation.  The employer declined, confirming its intention to proceed with the disciplinary process.

As a result Ms Bayly sought an interim order from the Commission preventing her employer from continuing with the investigation, or from taking any disciplinary action arising from it, pending the determination of the substantive bullying claim.  The interim order was sought under section 589(2) of the Fair Work Act which is in the following (simple) terms:

“The FWC may make an interim decision in relation to a matter before it.”

Can the interim order be made under these circumstances?

The employer opposed the interim order:

  • Ms Bayly had not provided a substantive response to the investigation;
  • the investigation was being conducted in a “reasonable manner”;
  • any interim order made by the Commission in the exercise of its anti-bullying jurisdiction must be directed towards preventing a worker from being bullied at work;
  • the draft findings of the investigation are adverse to Ms Bayly; and
  • if Ms Bayly were to be dismissed, she has other remedies available to her.

The employer claimed that the Commission was being asked to prospectively injunct the employer from dismissing the employee. As stated in the judgment,

 “That is, to essentially use the anti-bullying jurisdiction to step in and prevent a possible adverse action, without consideration as to whether that dismissal is justified.  The orders sought go beyond what would ordinarily be available in relation to an anti-bullying application and should not be made.”

It did not, however, say that the Commission had no power to make the order.

Commissioner Hampton started from the basis that he could only make an interim order if there is a serious issue to be tried and after determining where “the balance of convenience” lies. He then observed:

It also appears to me that the consideration of the prima facie case and the balance of convenience must be assessed having regard to the nature of the substantive application, the jurisdictional context in which the application is being considered, and the circumstances of the parties.

In a matter such as this, I also consider that the nature of the remedy provisions of s. 789FF of the Act [the anti-bullying provisions] should inform the consideration of the request for interim orders and the nature of any discretion to be exercised.  However, the purpose of the interim orders, including to preserve the capacity to advance the substantive application in appropriate circumstances, must also be considered.”

Should the interim order be made?

The next issue was looking at the particular circumstances of this case. The Commission took into consideration:

  • claims made in the substantive anti-bullying application about the retrospectivity of the conduct allegations;
  • the fact preliminary adverse findings had been reached against Ms Bayly;
  • Ms Bayly’s medical condition;
  • concerns expressed about the employer’s process and stated intention to finalise the investigation and make a decision on disciplinary action which could include dismissal of employment.

Commissioner Hampton was satisfied

“… that the s. 789FC application [the anti-bullying provision] has prima facie merit and there is sufficient likelihood of success to justify the preservation of the status quo pending further consideration and determination of the substantive matter by the Commission.  The allegations made by [the employee], if ultimately supported by evidence, would be grounds to support a finding that there was reported unreasonable conduct whilst she was at work within the meaning of s. 789FD of the Act.  Adopting the same caveat, those circumstances would also suggest that a relevant risk to health and safety arose.” 

Interestingly, a key aspect of the anti-bullying jurisdiction ‒ that no orders can be made once the employment relationship is at an end (except in very limited circumstances) ‒ was identified as,

“…a significant factor directly relevant to the balance of convenience and the exercise of any discretion”.

Commissioner Hampton recognised that circumstances might change the balance of convenience, so the interim orders might need to be reviewed.

How does this affect future disciplinary proceedings?

This decision is an interesting and concerning development, one that should be watched carefully by employers. It may well be a warning of what is to come for employers undertaking investigations and disciplinary processes.

The interim order has effectively halted (for the time being) the employer’s disciplinary process. The likely next step is the resolution of the substantive bullying claim.

Does this mean employers and employees will be in a race to the court if there is a potentially adverse disciplinary process? Commissioner Hampton did have some general words of caution for employees (or their representatives):

“given the scheme of the Act, interim orders of the nature being considered here would not be issued lightly.  The direct intervention of the Commission at such an early stage of proceedings should be exercised with considerable caution.  Further, the mere indication that a disciplinary process was involved in the complaints of workplace bullying, without much more, is unlikely to trigger the balance of convenience for such action.  Of course, each application must be considered in its own right and circumstances. 

As [the employer] contended, the Commission should be alert as to the undesirability of permitting the anti-bullying jurisdiction to simply be used to circumvent reasonable disciplinary action and its consequences.  In this case, there are some particular circumstances that have justified the making of the interim order.”

Notwithstanding Commissioner Hampton’s words of caution, it would not be surprising to see many applications of this kind in the context of disciplinary proceedings.

To put themselves in the best position to defend such applications employers should;

  • ensure any investigation is conducted fairly and objectively and does not, in the way it is undertaken, of itself constitute bullying (ie. it is “reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner”);
  • Consider out-sourcing bullying investigations to suitably qualified and experienced investigators.
  • Be able to demonstrate adverse consequences if a disciplinary proceeding is delayed by the making of such an interim order (including impact on other staff in the organisation and the integrity and efficacy of disciplinary processes).

Australian Workplace Training and Investigation can assist with professional and timely investigations of workplace issues such a bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and other areas of misconduct such as Code of Conduct breaches, IT and email misuse, theft and fraud, please contact us if you require assistance on 02 9674 4279 or enquiries@awpti.com.au

AWPTI – workplace investigations 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

Anti-bullying laws disciplinary process

www.awpti.com.au
http://awpti.com.au/investigations/

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations into bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and other forms of misconduct.

You can contact me on 02 9674 4279 or phil@awpti.com.au

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigators.

Anti-bullying laws disciplinary process