It's not always Black and White…...

- Monday, June 22, 2015
Think Employee Behaviour is Black and White?
Think Employee Behaviour is Black and White?
Sometimes, workplace incidents can seem straightforward to an employer – an employee has done something wrong, and action should be taken. But two recent cases before the Fair Work Commission (FWC) demonstrate the importance of properly investigating a matter and relying on sound evidence before taking action against an employee, and making sure that the action is an appropriate response.
Allegations of theft, and disproportionate action
In Amiatu and Others v Toll Ipec Pty Ltd, three employees took action against Toll for unfair dismissal. They came across an open box containing Toll safety uniforms. Surveillance cameras filmed them removing some of the uniforms and putting them on. They then went about their work. The following day, they worked their usual shifts, wearing the uniforms.

When Toll management became aware that the workers had taken the uniforms, it interviewed each of the workers and then spoke with the union delegate. Toll intended to terminate their employment for theft, and report the matter to the police. The union delegate persuaded Toll to allow the employees to resign, and convinced the employees to do so, despite their protests. The employees subsequently brought an action for unfair dismissal against Toll. 

The FWC found that they had been coerced into resignation by the threat of police involvement and poor future work prospects. The FWC also found that there had been no intention by the workers to steal the uniforms. They wore the uniforms in full view of other Toll staff and were also probably aware of the surveillance camera. They believed they had done nothing wrong, and had not made any attempts to cover up their actions. At worst, they had made an error in judgment by not following proper procedures to acquire the uniforms. Reprimands or warnings would have been more appropriate disciplinary action, the FWC found. 

Toll had failed to prove that theft had occurred. 

The FWC was also concerned that the union had so strongly encouraged the employees to resign when they had done nothing wrong. This effectively deprived them of adequate representation.

Although the FWC found no further significant issues with the investigation process, it would have been prudent for Toll to have conducted further interviews with each employee, with their representatives present, before any decisions were made about termination of employment and police involvement. 

The FWC found that the workers’ employment had been unfairly terminated and ordered their reinstatement.

The need for a proper investigation and sound evidence

In the case of Elton v Acupuncture Australia Pty Ltd, the FWC found that there was insufficient evidence to justify the termination of Ms Elton’s employment. 

Ms Elton worked for the employer (AA) in sales. Another employee had reported that she was behaving in a suspicious manner, printing out sales reports, rushing to the printer to collect them and then putting them in her handbag. AA looked into the matter, and found that a number of invoices had been deleted from the accounts system. AA terminated Ms Elton’s employment for engaging in “corporate theft and fraud involving cash, credit card, paypal and direct deposit.” It also accused her of acting with two former employees, and threatened to report the matter to the police.

Ms Elton denied the allegations and took action for unfair dismissal. The FWC accepted her explanation that she was printing out the reports to monitor her own performance. It also accepted that deleting invoices was a standard practice for cancelled orders, and that anyone could have done so. 

The FWC held that there was no evidence to suggest that Ms Elton had acted with the former employees, and that AA had failed to produce any evidence to support its claims of theft and fraud. Nor had AA made a police report. According to the findings, there were also issues with the investigation process, particularly that Ms Elton was not given a proper opportunity to respond to the allegations. Without warning, she was called to a meeting and the allegations were put to her. No documents were shown to her, either to justify the allegations or to seek her explanation. 

The FWC found that Elton had been unfairly dismissed. AA later appealed and the Full Bench of the FWC upheld the decision.
Implications for employers
These decisions demonstrate the need for employers to proceed with great care during investigations, especially ensuring that procedural fairness is adhered to every step of the way. Employers must also carefully assess the evidence against the allegations to ensure that there is enough proof to warrant disciplinary action. This can be challenging if the employer is very involved in the matter, as it can become difficult to make an impartial assessment .An experienced workplace investigator can be of great assistance in these situations, and it’s always a good idea to seek advice before a decision is made to terminate or discipline an employee.
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