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Paying the Price for Decision over Workplace Tantrum

Written by Glenn Finnigan, PARTNER on July 12th, 2016.    

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Tension in the Workplace

Until the robots take over, an essential feature of workplaces will be human interaction.  When combined with the pressures of modern employment, the broad range of personality types can often lead to conflict which an employer will need to step in and resolve.

However, a recent Authority decision is a handy reminder that the employer must act fairly in any steps it takes – as well as being realistic about the level of bad behaviour that will justify termination.  

We have previously written about cases where even swearing at your boss will not justify dismissal.  The decision is also important as part of what may be a trend towards larger compensation payments for hurt and humiliation.
 

Miller v Metropolitan Glazing

Mr Miller was hired as a Project Manager for Metropolitan Glazing (“Metro”).  Though his performance reviews were largely very good, Mr Miller had expressed frustration with Metro’s flat management structure, as he felt it resulted in a lack of clarity about lines of authority for projects. Metro had also noted that Mr Miller had a very “black-and-white communication style”, which was not always well received by his co-workers.

One day 
Mr Miller was approached by a colleague, Mr Wase, with some project information. The details were different to those Mr Miller had received from his manager. Mr Miller saw this as another example of the issues he had with the management structure. Mr Miller and Mr Wase “had words” about the issue.  Mr Miller says that Mr Wase was being aggressive. Mr Wase said it was Mr Miller who became agitated and raised his voice. The issue was reported informally by both men to Mr Miller’s manager.

Several days later, the manager called 
Mr Miller and Mr Wase to a meeting to discuss the incident. At the meeting, Mr Miller felt like Metro was accepting Mr Wase’s version of events and blaming him for being aggressive in the argument. This reinforced Mr Miller’s frustration about the open management structure. He became agitated and he was reported to have “thrown a tantrum” about those things in the meeting.  Immediately following the meeting, Mr Miller’s manager sent him home for the rest of the day.  The following day Metro phoned Mr Miller advising him that he was “stood down” until a meeting later that week.  That call was followed by a letter confirming the suspension was in relation to allegations of “serious misconduct” relating to his interaction(s) with Mr Wase.

The Authority held that the suspension was unjustifiable as Metro did not give 
Mr Miller advice about the allegations or the chance to respond to the proposed suspension before it happened.  The Authority strongly disagreed with Metro’s opinion that a formal meeting to be heard about a suspension was “overkill”.  It was also noted that Metro did not follow its own disciplinary procedure in suspending
Mr Miller.  On top of the procedural issues, the Authority found that simply venting frustration about an issue did not substantively justify a suspension.  There was no risk of a “significant issue” arising in the workplace which warranted the serious step of keeping Mr Miller out of the workplace.

After a long investigation of over months, 
Mr Miller was fired because of his heated discussion with Mr Wase and his tantrum at the subsequent meeting.  The Authority found that neither of those events justified dismissing Mr Miller.  The sort of behaviour required would include things like assault, threatening behaviour or intimidation, not simply venting frustration to a manager.

Metro also failed to even consider whether
Mr Miller’s behaviour could be considered a performance issue, rather than serious misconduct.  Importantly, Metro relied on CCTV footage of Mr Miller’s argument with Mr Wase to support the dismissal.  The footage did not have sound, but Metro’s HR Manager claimed that it showed Mr Miller being aggressive through his body language.  The Authority disagreed (supported by an expert witness).   The footage showed Mr Miller take a passive stance, and Metro’s assessment was found to be biased.

There were numerous other procedural failings.  The Authority was quite critical of Metro’s HR manager for these failings, in 
particular the approach to the suspension, the biased interpretation of the CCTV footage, and the interviewing/reporting techniques that had been used in respect of witnesses.

The Outcome

Mr Miller was reinstated to his position at Metro (or an equivalent role).  He was also awarded $8,000 compensation for his unjustifiable suspension, $32,000 in lost wages and $20,000 in hurt and humiliation for the unjustifiable dismissal.  Both awards of hurt and humiliation were reduced by 10% for contribution as Mr Miller’s tantrum was seen as an unfortunate way to raise issues in the workplace.

This case highlights that there can be significant advantages for employers in using an external expert in employment law when dealing with internal disputes and disciplinary issues.  The serious procedural mistakes, particularly the biased interpretation of the CCTV footage, suggest that the company’s investigator may not have approached the matter with the objectivity and impartiality that was required.

The large awards for hurt and humiliation, along with the reinstatement, are reminders that suspension and dismissal are not steps to be taken lightly.  Even well-resourced employers with HR departments can get it wrong, resulting in expensive and embarrassing decisions like those discussed above.

How we can help

Jackson Russell is experienced in representing/guiding employers and employees through the disciplinary process.  If you would like further information about a specific disciplinary issue or require advice on anything related to employment matters, please contact your usual Jackson Russell advisor or our Employment Law specialists.

 

Disclaimer
The information contained in this publication is of a general nature and is not intended as legal advice.  It is important that you seek legal advice that is specific to your circumstances.
 
All rights reserved © Jackson Russell 2016
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Glenn Finnigan 167
Glenn Finnigan, PARTNER
 

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