Unfair Dismissal: Case Studies from the FWC

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Perhaps one of the most vexed issues employers face is how to terminate employees without exposing the organisation to the risk of a successful unfair dismissal action. 

In light of the 15 January updates to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) Unfair Dismissals Benchbook, these two unfair dismissal cases at the FWC demonstrate the importance of employers being on safe legal ground before dismissing an employee. This is particularly important in circumstances where successful actions could result in a significant compensatory payment, or the employer being forced to re-hire a terminated staff member.  

1. The sleeping ferry master

In the decision of Sclater v Transdev Harbour City Ferries Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7968, it was found that a ferry master who fell asleep during his shift had been appropriately terminated and not unfairly dismissed. 

In this matter, Mr Sclater was discovered to be asleep on a bench in the wheelhouse during the course of his shift travelling from the Pyrmont Bay Wharf to McMahons Point Wharf in Sydney. Instead of Mr Sclater, the ship’s engineer Mr Drygajlo was manning the helm. 

It was subsequently discovered that Mr Sclater, who was on numerous different types of medication due to a (disclosed and medically cleared) heart condition, had been taking a cough medicine for approximately a week. 

Despite warnings regarding potential drowsiness, Mr Sclater claimed not to have noticed that part of the label and had suffered no ill effects. However, on the date of Mr Sclater’s transgression, he had forgotten to take his heart medication but remembered to take the cough syrup. As a result, Mr Sclater suddenly felt extremely drowsy and sat down to “close his eyes”. By his own estimation, he was only unconscious for about five minutes.

The employer, Transdev, argued that Mr Sclater had both breached the company’s Drug and Alcohol Policy and had given dishonest evidence about whether he had in fact been asleep, and for how long. Although the FWC did not find any dishonesty in Mr Sclater’s evidence regarding how long he had been asleep, it was concluded that he had breached the relevant policy. 

This was because Mr Sclater: 

  • Did not obtain proper advice from the pharmacist about contraindications with his existing medicine and the cough syrup.
  • Exceeded the prescribed dosage of the cough medicine.
  • Did not read the information about the potential side effects. 

Ultimately, the FWC determined that, given Mr Sclater’s role as ferry master, there was no option but for him to remain fully alert at all times when on duty. His failure to do so in the circumstances meant that he had been validly dismissed.

2. Beers before work

By contrast, in the matter of Morcos v Serco Australia Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7675, Mr Morcos was reinstated to his employment after being found to have been unfairly dismissed. 

Employed at the Villawood Detention Centre, Mr Morcos was on a rostered day off and had consumed two beers when he received a telephone call and was asked to come in for a shift. He agreed, believing that his blood alcohol concentration would have returned to 0.00 before his shift commenced. However, following a random alcohol test at work, Mr Morcos recorded two readings of 0.037 and 0.032. He was sent home (notably by driving his car!). 

Mr Morcos worked one further shift but was then terminated for breaches of the Drug and Alcohol Policy. 
The FWC found in Mr Morcos’ favour, however, noting that:

  • A blood alcohol reading between 0 and 0.005 could (and at that workplace previously had) result in a written warning and not an immediate termination. 
  • Mr Morcos had consumed a reasonable amount of alcohol on a rostered day off, believing that he would not be required to work after consuming the beers.
  • Mr Morcos was allowed to work the next day for an entire shift and was not subjected to alcohol testing on that occasion. 

The FWC therefore concluded that the nature of Mr Morcos’ alleged misconduct was not sufficiently serious to warrant termination. It ordered the employer to reinstate Mr Morcos to his former role. 

Employers, are you facing an unfair dismissal allegation? WISE investigators are experts in this field. They have years of experience in undertaking even the most complex workplace investigations, and are able to ensure your investigation is fair and legally sound. If your organisation needs assistance with a workplace investigation, WISE provides full as well as supported investigation services.

Whistleblowing in 2020: Is Your Organisation Ready?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 23, 2020

The concept of whistleblowing was once frowned upon, or at the very least looked upon with trepidation. However, in recent years, the value of promoting whistleblowing as an acceptable way to improve corporate regulatory compliance and culture has been demonstrated. In this changing landscape, organisations are embracing whistleblowing - and many also have new obligations to comply with. 

Is your organisation ready for whistleblowing in 2020? Let's look at who can be a whistleblower; who is authorised to receive disclosures; and which organisations must have a whistleblower platform in place. 

What is whistleblowing?

Whistleblowers are individuals with some connection to an organisation, who choose to report corporate misconduct or illegal activities. 

Legislation, including new legislation which came into force on 1 July 2019, provides extended rights and protections to whistleblowers. Ultimately, the intent of the legislation is to ensure that whistleblowers are protected against reprisals, legal action, or general detriment, such as disciplinary action taken by the employer. 

Whistleblower protection may be afforded to various categories of people, including: 

  • Current employees of a company (or a related company)
  • The spouses or relatives of employees 
  • Officers of a company 
  • Contractors who have dealt with the company (potentially including volunteers)
  • General associates of the company

Whistleblowing also includes public interest disclosures. An example of a public interest disclosure might be an employee making a report about a bank which has been consistently charging members fees for no service. These apply in circumstances where a previous report has been made to ASIC or APRA and not actioned within 90 days, and the whistleblower is of the view that the information is of such importance to the public interest that it would be worthwhile reporting concerns to a journalist or a parliamentarian. 

Alternatively, emergency disclosures may be made if concerned parties have reasonable grounds to believe that the matters to be reported concern substantial or imminent danger to health and safety of people or the environment. 

how the disclosure process works

Disclosure about misconduct may be made anonymously, but must be reported to a specific group of people, including: 

  • Directors, company officers or senior managers
  • Auditors of the company 
  • Actuaries associated with the company 
  • A person specifically authorised to receive disclosures (generally a Human Resources officer) 
  • Regulatory authorities such as ASIC or APRA
  • Legal practitioners

Concerns can be reported internally using pre-determined organisational systems such as phone or online reporting. At the very least, an organisation should publish its whistleblowing policy and identify the people who are entitled to receive reports. 

Within a company, those authorised to receive disclosures must act on disclosures by investigating and protecting whistleblowers. 

WHY IS A WHISTLEBLOWING PLATFORM IMPORTANT?

The new legislation means that all public companies, large proprietary companies and corporate trustees of superannuation funds must have a whistleblower policy from January 1, 2020. Large proprietary companies are classed as those that have a consolidated annual revenue of at least $25 million, consolidated gross assets of at least $12.5 million or at least 50 employees.  

In addition to the legislative requirements, there are reasons why all organisations should have a strong platform for whistleblowing. 

These include increasing public and employee confidence in the desire of the organisation to “do the right thing”, and ensuring that senior personnel are safe in the knowledge that, if anybody is committing wrongdoing, staff and related persons can be confident to report those matters without fear of reprisals. 

One of the most effective ways to deal with whistleblowers is to set up an external hotline. This means that reports can be made anonymously. People can avoid potential embarrassment or concerns about making a report in circumstances where they potentially see the people whose conduct they are reporting on a daily basis.

WISE is a leading provider of whistleblowing services in Australia, offering organisations a secure service known as ‘Grapevine’ for staff to report concerns. 

Grapevine allows for anonymous reporting via phone call or online report. Reporters are enabled to provide supporting evidence, and can also choose whether to remain anonymous or leave their contact details. Each report is assigned a case number so it can be tracked throughout the whistleblowing and assessment process. Reports are reviewed by a highly trained and experienced team, and the organisation's nominated contact person is notified within 24 hours. Updates are available online. Depending on the level of service, the Grapevine team can also follow up and take action according to an organisation's whistleblower policy.

For more information on complying with whistleblower legislation, please download our free whistleblowing whitepaper which can answer your questions regarding the changes. If you would like an obligation-free cost estimate to implement a confidential hotline in your workplace, contact us here.

Managing Volunteers in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 16, 2020

Volunteers can be a fabulous resource in any business. Generally, they bring enthusiasm, true passion for the organisation's ethos and purpose, and a "can-do" attitude to the job.

However, volunteers in the workplace can also bring their own set of challenges for organisations. Even though they are not on the payroll, volunteers enjoy the same protections as paid workers are entitled to. Indeed, the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) defines volunteers as "workers", thereby putting them on equal footing.

So let's look at some tips and tricks for managing volunteers in the workplace.

Employee and volunteer conflict

One of the risks inherent in relying on volunteers is conflict with employees. In part, this may be due to a "us against them" perception. Further, staff who are employed in the business on a daily basis, may perceive that volunteers have less of an understanding or practical knowledge of how tasks should be completed, or how things are done. Employees may also resent the apparent flexibility afforded to volunteers. A pertinent example is the longstanding feud between paid and volunteer Country Fire Authority staff in Victoria, which resulted in the CFA being devolved into a volunteer-only organisation in early 2019.

Difficulties managing volunteer conflict

In addition to the everyday personnel issues facing organisations, additional challenges involving volunteers include:

  • An unwillingness of volunteers to raise concerns or "rock the boat", largely due to the fact that they may already feel isolated or otherwise segregated from employees. Any conflicts or issues may not be raised with management, for fear of reprisals or concerns about not being taken seriously.
  • A lack of understanding of protections. Many volunteers may not be aware that they are entitled to the same protections as paid staff, and may consider it pointless to raise any conflicts or concerns with management.
  • Lower priority for the organisation. Even if volunteers do raise concerns, management may deal with these issues less expeditiously, because volunteers could be perceived as being easily replaceable. 

responsibilities of volunteer-active workplaces

Employers who rely on volunteers or who are considering welcoming them into the workplace, have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment. They must therefore take steps to protect volunteers from bullying and harassment.

In the same fashion, employers remain vicariously liable for volunteer's conduct and behaviour. For example, if a volunteer engaged in an activity on behalf of the organisation and negligently or otherwise causes injury to a third party, the employer could be found liable. This is despite the absence of any financial relationship between the volunteer and the business.

Organisations need to ensure that policies are updated (where required) to identify that they also encompass volunteer staff. Volunteers should be provided with copies of all policies, and their workplace rights and obligations should be clearly communicated.

When commencing a relationship with a volunteer, it is also important to ensure that there are very clear volunteer engagement "Agreements" in place. These should be carefully drafted to ensure that both parties are well aware of their rights and obligations under the agreement.

Volunteer-based organisations, like all workplaces, have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for all their workers. All conflict and alleged misconduct should be taken seriously, whether it relates to paid staff and/or volunteers. If your organisation needs assistance managing a challenging workplace conflict, WISE offers both supported and full investigation services to provide you with the flexibility you need.