Therese MacDermott, Consultant and Michael Starkey, Associate
The focus of much of the debate on the merits of a dismissal is usually the substantive and procedural fairness of the termination. Often, our litmus test is whether there was a valid reason to terminate, and whether the termination was carried out in a procedurally fair manner. However, the legislative regime governing unfair dismissals has three dimensions – not only whether the termination was unjust or unreasonable, but also whether it was harsh.
In this article we explore the terrain of “harshness”, and we distinguish this criterion from the other dimensions of dismissal to give you a clearer picture of what factors are pertinent to a finding that a termination is unfair in the circumstances. A consideration of these factors can then be incorporated into your organisation’s processes for managing situations requiring a disciplinary response, in a manner that minimises the risk of a successful unfair dismissal claim.
What constitutes harshness?
The range of mitigating circumstances that may be relevant to the question of harshness is much broader than one might expect, and includes not only the circumstances of an employee’s employment (for example, their work history and disciplinary or performance record), but also their personal circumstances (such as their age, mental health or likelihood of successfully finding alternative employment based on their skill set). Harshness is also relevant in that it extends to situations where termination of employment is a disproportionate response to the conduct in question. The Fair Work Commission (“FWC”) is vested with a wide discretion in its consideration of harshness, as the legislation specifies a wide range of criteria that can be considered, including “any other matters that the FWC considers relevant”.1
While factors such as an employee’s personal circumstances are not matters that employers have any direct control over, they are matters about which an employer can make enquiries prior to imposing any disciplinary sanctions. It is prudent for an employer to ask an employee in broad terms to provide any information the employee believes may be relevant to the employer’s deliberations regarding the most appropriate form of disciplinary action to take (for example, as part of a “show cause” process). This allows an employee to draw to the employer’s attention any factors of a personal nature before the disciplinary process is finalised, and ensures that the employer is fully appraised of relevant matters, before opting for termination as the appropriate disciplinary response.
On the other hand, there are matters relevant to the question of harshness that are clearly within the employer’s control. One of the regular points that emerges in disputed terminations is the question of whether there was a culture that tolerated certain conduct, or where there has been inconsistency in enforcing compliance with standards of behaviour.
Case study: Swearing at work
The cases that deal with swearing at work offer a good illustration of the types of mitigating circumstances that should factor into an employer’s deliberations before a decision is made to terminate employment for conduct related reasons. The cases show that the presence of mitigating factors does not always make termination inappropriate. Rather, it is a question of showing that due consideration has been given to such factors. In some situations, the mitigating circumstances will not be sufficient to weigh against termination as the appropriate disciplinary outcome.
The FWC has observed that:
“…one can readily hypothesise a case where the breach of a swearing policy would not be seen by any reasonable person as justifying dismissal. In a workplace where swearing occurs without warnings or disciplinary response, selecting a single instance of swearing by a stressed employee with long and unblemished service as a basis for dismissal would be seen by any reasonable person as harsh and unfair”.2
In this context, the failure of the employer to respond to prior occurrences of similar behaviour, the one-off nature of the incident, the long and unblemished record of the employee, and the employee’s “stressed” condition all constituted mitigating factors which, when given appropriate weight, should have led the employer to a disciplinary outcome other than termination. In a similar case, while the use of profanities and threats of violence by a mine worker constituted a valid reason for dismissal, the employer was found to have not given the mitigating circumstances sufficient consideration, which resulted in the termination being harsh in the circumstances.3 Those circumstances included the fact that the incident was a “one-off”, that the worker had an eleven-year record of service with no known prior disciplinary action, and was suffering personal health difficulties. In addition, the Full Bench of the FWC observed that language of this type had been allowed to be used without criticism by the employer for many years.
In another case, the FWC ordered the reinstatement of an employee who had seven years of unblemished service, and whose skills and age (50) meant he had limited prospects of finding alternative work.4 The incident leading to termination arose when certain employees took protected industrial action. The applicant left a message on the mobile phone of another employee, who he believed not to have participated in the protected industrial action, and said “Hi mate, just wondering if you are working. If you are, you’re a f…ing scab”. A complaint was made, the employer investigated the matter, and then summarily dismissed the employee for misconduct. The FWC found that while the employee’s conduct was a valid reason for termination, the dismissal was a disproportionate response to the conduct, which was out of character for the employee, appeared to be inconsistent with disciplinary action taken in other similar matters, and did not have due regard to the employee’s previous good service and work performance.