No opportunity to respond ‚ Æ unfair dismissal
The dismissal of an employee for poor work performance has been deemed to be unfair. Poor performance had only been one of the reasons for the dismissal ‚ Æ the other being unacceptable behaviour towards colleagues and superiors ‚ Æ and the employee had not been given an opportunity to respond to either of the reasons.
[Full text of this case: B v SPI PowerNet Pty Ltd  FWA 5962 (25 July 2012)]
Unacceptable behaviour due to domestic stress
A procurement coordinator employed by an electricity provider was short-tempered at work and received a written warning on 25 March 2010 because of his behaviour. He was under serious stress because his former wife would not give him access to his young son (who had just started walking), and because he had been involved in a car accident and the person liable for damage to his car was refusing to pay.
In October 2010, the employee also had run-ins with some of his superiors because he thought they were breaching the company’s purchasing policy and exposed it to monetary losses. He then received a final warning in January 2011. In June 2011, he requested to work part-time until early 2012 so that he could care for his son two days a week, but the employer did not respond to his request.
The employee went on leave and returned on 12 September 2011. He was put under pressure because the employer had introduced new software and gave him only half an hour’s training on the new system. Another employee felt frustrated by the new system too, even though she had been given two hours of training.
On 7 October 2011, the employee was told there were concerns about his performance and behaviour and he was given a performance improvement plan. Over three weeks, weekly meetings were held to assess his performance against the plan. At the third meeting, on 28 October 2011, his behaviour and conduct were raised but issues relating to work performance were not. He was dismissed after the meeting, and the reason given was that his work performance had not improved sufficiently.
The employee applied to Fair Work Australia for an unfair dismissal remedy according to s394 of the Fair Work Act 2009, claiming the termination of his employment had been harsh, unjust or unreasonable. A conciliation conference on 29 December 2011 was not successful.
Evidence before Fair Work Australia
Before Fair Work Australia (Commissioner Cribb), the employer claimed a number of formal and informal conversations had been held with the employee about his conduct. He had frequently absented himself from work without permission, and had raised his voice in uncontrolled and aggressive outbursts towards his colleagues and manager at work. He had not completed the majority of the tasks set for him, and the quality of his completed work had been poor.
The employee claimed his employer had set him up to fail after he returned from leave. It had changed his job, provided inadequate training in the new system and made it difficult for him to convert to part-time in order to care for his child. He also alleged that the performance management process had been a sham ‚ Æ a process set up in order to manage him out of his job. The performance plan had been unachievable because it had required him to complete not only his regular weekly work but also a backlog of eight months of work that had not been done while he had been on leave.
Poor work performance
During the three-week performance improvement review period, the employee had worked three days a week and had been on sick leave two and a half days; so, instead of assessing his performance over three weeks, it had been assessed on only 6.5 days of work.
The tribunal accepted that at the final meeting on 28 October 2011 the employee had not been told where he had not met the performance plan and had not been given an opportunity to speak about the tasks he had completed. Although the behavioural concerns had not been mentioned in the dismissal letter, it was clear that they had also been part of the reason for the dismissal.
The tribunal found that the employer had not established that there had been a valid reason for the employee’s dismissal based on his work performance.
The employee’s behaviour at work, with uncontrolled and aggressive outbursts, had undoubtedly been unacceptable. In his witness statement, he said that he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety already some 21 years previously and that it had been successfully controlled then. His employer, however, had not been aware of his history of depression, but at the same time it had not enquired either whether his inappropriate behaviour could be related to a medical condition.
The tribunal found that on the basis of his unacceptable behaviour there had been a valid reason for the employee’s dismissal.
Conclusions ‚ Æ compensation awarded
As the employee had not been notified of one of the two reasons for his dismissal, he had not been given the opportunity to respond to that reason. Even in relation to the work performance reason, his performance during the final week had not been discussed at the meeting on 28 October 2009, so it could be argued that he had not been given opportunity to respond to that either. The tribunal concluded that the dismissal had been harsh, unjust or unreasonable.
The tribunal was satisfied that reinstatement was inappropriate as a remedy. In calculating compensation, it took into account the employee’s 22 years of service and his salary at the time of the dismissal. It determined that he was entitled to $19,939.28 in compensation. Up until 3 February 2012, he had not been able to undertake alternative work, and after that he had been able to work two days a week. Hence, a discount of 15% was deemed to be appropriate, leaving the compensation as $16,948.38. However, the figure could not be finalised until the tribunal had information of any other possible payments the employee had received since 3 February 2012.
Source: http://www.workplaceinfo.com.au (06/09/2012)