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Defending Unfair dismissal applications – If you terminate a employee there is always the possibility that the employee might submit an application to the FWC for unfair dismissal.

If an application is made an employer must respond to the application otherwise the FWC may regard the matter as being uncontested as it did in the matter of Antonarakis v Logan City Electrical Service Division P/L.

In this matter the applicant was dismissed after allegations that he was seen working for himself for cash while employed by respondent, the applicant argued he was helping friend repair pool fence at relevant time

Following the applicant making an application to the FWC in regard to unfair dismissal multiple attempts were made by Commission to notify respondent of proceedings by way of emails, letters and telephone calls.

Commission Simpson was satisfied respondent was aware of application and had ample opportunity to respond, however had chosen not to do so,  on that basis Commission treated application as uncontested. The respondent was found not to have complied with Small Business Fair Dismissal Code.

The Commissioner could not be satisfied that the respondent believed on reasonable grounds that applicant’s conduct was ‘sufficiently serious to justify immediate dismissal’. If the dismissal could have been regarded as with notice, applicant had not been warned, given an opportunity to respond, nor given a valid reason as to why his employment was at risk.

The Commission accepted that applicant had not done a cash job and found no valid reason for termination as the Service Manager and Managing Director had notified applicant of reason for termination, but each accused the other of witnessing alleged conduct and being decision maker. It was found that the applicant was denied procedural fairness and as a result the dismissal was harsh, unjust and unreasonable.

It was considered that reinstatement was inappropriate, compensation of $19,640 gross taxed, plus 9.5% superannuation was ordered.

Also remember timely and professional workplace investigations into misconduct may strengthen your case.

Defending Unfair dismissal applications
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”.

 

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/

 

 

 

Warnings, termination, unfair dismissal – It is important if as an employer you are going to rely on past warnings when terminating a employee, that the warning/s are relevant to the reasons for termination, failure to do so could see the Fair Work Commission hold the the termination was unfair as it did in the case of Taylor v Qube Ports P/L t/a Qube Ports (See below)

“The issue of tolerance of poor behaviour or performance is among the most delicate issues that managers and HR managers will face with employers weighing up questions of fairness, due diligence, productivity and workplace harmony – as well as legal aspects.

One potentially awkward scenario is when an employee has received official warnings that are dated or have expiry dates, that the employee duly sees out, only for the sub-par behaviour or performance to return soon after these dates.

The question is, how viable is it for an employer to refer back to expired warnings or a letter dated older than six month as grounds for further action or even dismissal?

It is important to remember if terminating or disciplining an employee not to confuse the purpose of warning letters, for example;

  • Previous warning letters that relate to behavioural issues or misconduct cannot relied on in cases of poor performance and vice versa.
  • If an employee breaches a safety guideline, process or procedure you cannot rely on a previous warning letters for unrelated behavioural or poor performance issues.”

Excerpt from the AWPTI Reasonable Management Action manual – http://awpti.com.au/reasonable-management-action-manual/

Warnings, termination, unfair dismissal – Taylor v Qube Ports P/L t/a Qube Ports

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

The applicant Mr Taylor was terminated for breach of a lawful and reasonable direction given by employer regarding loading of ship on 1 July 2016.

Evidence was provided that the applicant had received three prior warnings for threatening behaviour and failing to follow company procedure.

Mr Taylor submitted that on 1 July 2016 the breach was not deliberate and that he was under a lot of pressure that day. In response Qube argued that applicant’s submissions in relation to nature or quality of breach was irrelevant to question of valid reason and stated that that applicant knew about procedure and decided consciously and wilfully not to follow it.

The Commission found applicant breached company procedure and that he was familiar with it but as it was an isolated event and that it did not constitute a valid reason for dismissal and that the prior warnings were not relevant as they were dubious factually with dubious processes.

The Commission found in favour of the respondent that applicant’s previous warnings should be taken into account but only to the extent of whether or not the incidents (relating to the warning) had occurred but not relevance to the dismissal.  The Commission found dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable, that reinstatement inappropriate. Compensation of $18,225.80 less taxation was ordered.

Link to case – https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2017fwc2238.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/

 

Unfair dismissal NSW Government employees – If you are employed by the NSW Government or a local council you are not covered by the provision of the Fair Work Act and therefore you cannot make an unfair dismissal application to the Fair Work Commission, so what can you do?

You can make an application to New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission and here is how you do it

Unfair dismissal NSW Government employees – Who Can Make an Unfair Dismissal Claim?

If an employee thinks that he/she has been unfairly dismissed by their employer, it may be possible that an unfair dismissal claim can be made to the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission. Dismissal includes threatened dismissal.

From 1 January 2010, private sector NSW employers and employees previously covered by the NSW state award system (mainly sole traders and partnerships) moved into the national workplace relations system administered by the federal government. Generally, employees employed by a corporation have been covered by the national system since the introduction of the Workchoices legislation in March 2006. Information about federal unfair dismissal procedures .

The effect of that change is that an employee will only be covered by the NSW industrial relations system if he or she is:

  • a state public sector employee
  • a local government employee

If an employee is employed by one of these types of employer and is :

  • either covered by a State industrial award or enterprise agreement
  • or is award free and earns no more than $138,900

he or she may be eligible to make an application for relief from alleged unfair dismissal.

This may include:

  • some casual employees;
  • employees who have been forced to resign;
  • employees who have been dismissed while on workers compensation.

Unfair dismissal NSW Government employees – Who may not be able to file a claim?

  • employees of private sector employers if dismissed after 1 January 2010
  • apprentices or trainees;
  • independent contractors;
  • employees on a 3 month probation period if determined in advance;
  • some casual employees;
  • employees on contracts of employment for a specified period of time less than 6 months;
  • employees engaged under a contract of employment for a specific task.

Apprentices and trainees may contact the Apprenticeships & Traineeships Hotline on 132 811 for information about termination of their apprenticeship.

Unfair dismissal NSW Government employees – What can the Commission do?

Where the Commission upholds a claim, it may order an employer to:

  • reinstate the employee to their former position
  • re-employ the employee in another position that the employer has available
  • provide back pay and other entitlements owing from the time of the dismissal, where reinstatement or re-employment is ordered
  • compensate the employee by ordering payment of an amount not exceeding the remuneration of the employee during the six months before the dismissal, where reinstatement or re-employment is considered impracticable
  • not dismiss the employee, where dismissal has been threatened.

More information about the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission here –
http://www.irc.justice.nsw.gov.au/Pages/IRC_about_us/IRC_about_us.aspx
http://www.irc.justice.nsw.gov.au/Pages/IRC_procedures_legislation/IRC_procedures_legislation_ud.aspx#Makeclaim

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/

 

Procedural Fairness – Workplace Investigation Procedural Fairness – Workplace Investigation – When conducting any misconduct workplace investigation, grievance investigation, performance management or any other disciplinary process it is vitally important that employers ensure that employees involved at afforded procedural fairness. Many unfair dismissal applications are successful at the Fair Work Commission due to the absence […]

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.

 

Unfair dismissal flawed investigation

Unfair dismissal flawed investigation – Workplace investigations may be necessary part of business but are often complex and difficult to conduct, especially for the untrained and inexperienced.

A question that is generally raised after a complaint has been lodged is whether to conduct the investigation internally or to obtain external investigation assistance.

Before relying on the findings of an investigation especially when terminating an employee, employers must consider whether the investigation itself and its findings are sound and can be supported by the facts.

In the case of Jennifer Walker v Salvation Army (NSW) [2017] FWC 32 the internal investigation was found flawed due to reliance on false assumptions.

Link to case: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/FWC/2017/32.html

In this unfair dismissal case at the Fair Work Commission, the applicant Ms Walker was the manager of the Salvation Army’s store in Lidcombe, Sydney. She had been an employee of the Salvation Army for 11 years and during that time had an unblemished employee record.

In July 2016, Ms Walker served a customer who wished to purchase items of furniture. Ms Walker did not enter a sale and provided the customer with a handwritten document indicating she had set aside certain items.

The customer arrived later in the week to pick up the furniture. The customer claimed he had paid $200 in full for the furniture, however, there was no record of sale. The Salvation Army subsequently investigated the issue. The investigation consisted of a review of the CCTV footage and discussions with Ms Walker and the customer.

The Salvation Army believed the customer’s account and that the CCTV showed Ms Walker had received $200 cash from a customer as payment for furniture he was purchasing.

The CCTV footage showed that while dealing with the customer, Ms Walker had at least $50 in her hand. Ms Walker denied receiving any money from the customer. The Salvation Army terminated her employment for serious misconduct (theft).

In considering the case, Senior Deputy President Hamberger noted that the more serious the alleged conduct the higher the standard of reasonable satisfaction is needed to be applied when determining whether the conduct occurred.

SDP Hamberger found that the evidence demonstrated that Ms Walker was holding a $50 note in her hand, but it did not establish that she had received that money from the customer. SDP Hamberger concluded the customer had not paid Ms Walker for the furniture and as a result held that Ms Walker had not engaged in serious misconduct and that her termination was unfair

SDP Hamberger was surprised at the lack of rigour in the internal investigation and that the Salvation Army so readily accepted the customer’s claims that he had paid ahead of the account of Ms Walker.

In finding that the dismissal was unfair, SDP Hamberger considered the criteria in section 392 of the Fair Work Act 2009 and awarded the Store Manager the maximum available compensation of twenty six weeks’ pay equating to $22,404.50.

Lessons for employers

When conducting a workplace disciplinary investigation, employers should undertake the following:

  • Ensure that the employee is afforded procedural fairness especially the right to be heard
  • Ensure that the employee is provided with an opportunity to respond to the allegations. This involves providing the employee with sufficient details of the alleged conduct in writing.
  • In the case of CCTV evidence, it is recommended that employers, ensure that the employee are permitted to view the footage prior to providing a response.
  • Genuinely consider different or alternative explanations for the alleged conduct, and ensure all available evidence is gathers from witnesses and duly considered.
  • Consider any mitigating circumstances prior to making a determination in regard to disciplinary action such the length of service or employment record and past behaviour of the employee.
  • Ensure impartiality and avoid making assumptions of guilt prior to the completion of a fair and thorough investigation;
  • Provide the employee with the opportunity to have a support person present, including providing the employee with sufficient opportunity to find an appropriate support person; and
  • When in doubt, consider other opinions before terminating.

This decision in this case demonstrates the disadvantages of undertaking an internal investigation which was not thorough and made assumptions (that is, the customer’s account was truthful), rather than taking a more open minded approach to all asserted facts.

If in doubt call an expert, getting a workplace investigation wrong can be costly both in terms of money and reputation.

AWPTI – workplace investigations Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria. Workplace training national wide
Workplace investigations misconduct, bullying, harassment & sexual harassment 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.