The Year That Was: Lessons From 2015 Part Two

Procedural fairness and workplace culture were major topics this year

Posted by Harriet Stacey in on January 26th, 2016
2015 also saw cases of workers being unfairly punished for a third party overstepping the mark.
Last week’s blog, part 1 of our two-part series on lessons employers can take from 2015, highlighted some important case law around the themes of bullying and the definition of ‘at work’.

In part 2, we take a look at important decisions in other areas of workplace law, including workplace culture and procedural fairness, and the implications for employers.

WORKPLACE CULTURE AND ITS IMPACT

When it comes to workplace culture, alcohol seems to be a key feature – and an increasingly vexing issue for employers.

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In the NSW District Court matter of Mitchell-Innes, a manager attended a conference still drunk from the night before. He disrupted part of the session and his employment was later terminated for gross misconduct.

The court found that alcohol consumption was entrenched in the workplace culture, and this meant that the employee’s conduct was not serious enough to warrant termination of employment.

Similarly, Keenan’s drunken behaviour during and after the office Christmas party led to the termination of his employment.

Both cases found that misconduct would be harder to establish when there was a culture of drinking in the workplace, including after-hours functions.

In Keenan, the FWC listed some steps of caution that a reasonable employer should take in trying to stop things getting out of hand, including ensuring that alcohol service is restricted, and employees are aware of employer expectations of behaviour.

OVERSTEPPING THE MARK

No workplace investigation is of value unless it is undertaken properly, so it is no surprise that procedural fairness featured prominently as a theme last year.
2015 also saw cases of workers being unfairly punished for a third party overstepping the mark.

In Amiatu, employees were accused of theft. Their union representative persuaded the company to allow them to resign rather than be terminated. The employees later claimed they were coerced to resign because they feared police involvement. The FWC held that the union representative failed to act in the best interest of the workers, even though the employer had reasonably believed it had negotiated an outcome.

This is a reminder to employers to be careful about negotiating with employee representatives, especially when the employee is not present.

In the case of BQY, systems designed to protect went too far. A female student teacher had allowed a former student to kiss her some time after she had finished her placement and after the boy had turned 18. She was subsequently refused a clearance to work with children by the Children’s Guardian, placing her teaching career in jeopardy. On review, it was found that she was not a threat to the safety of children, and she was granted the clearance.

PROCEDURAL FAIRNESS AND STANDARD OF PROOF

No workplace investigation is of value unless it is undertaken properly, so it is no surprise that procedural fairness featured prominently as a theme last year.

In Amiatu, as well as the union overstepping the mark, the FWC found that the employer had not uncovered enough evidence to prove allegations of theft and had failed to objectively assess the matter. The Elton case concerned an employee’s alleged suspicious behaviour. The FWC found there was a reasonable explanation for the employee’s conduct, and the employer did not have enough evidence to support the allegations.

Both cases are a reminder that evidence must be carefully assessed and all possible options and explanations considered. Engaging an independent investigator is often an excellent way to achieve this.

In Willis, there was some confusion about whether the employee was being performance managed or disciplined. The FWC found that employers must be clear about the process from the outset, and that any action taken against the employee must be a proportionate response to their conduct.

The NSW Supreme Court case of Bartlett found that the employer could effectively set its own standard of proof, depending on the wording of the employment contract in question. It will be interesting to see how this decision is subsequently developed, as it seems a significant departure from the usual standard of ‘on the balance of probabilities’.

A TIMELY REMINDER

These employment law decisions of 2015 serve as a good reminder of the fundamentals for disciplinary matters or termination of employment:

  • Investigate properly and fairly.
  • Maintain objectivity.
  • Act within authority.
  • Foster a workplace culture that is safe and healthy for all.

Keeping these things in mind, we hope that our clients enjoy a happy and prosperous 2016!

Harriet Stacey
Harriet Stacey

Owner, WISE Workplace

Harriet Stacey is a founding member and Chief Executive Officer of WISE Workplace, a national Australian firm providing investigative services in relation to workplace misconduct since 2002. She has designed, implemented and managed the workplace investigations processes for leading government agencies, corporations and the not for profit sector, trained thousands of HR and compliance professionals to conduct investigations and has conducted and overseen over a 1000 investigations of fraud, discrimination, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, child protection and inappropriate use of ICT resources.

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