It’s safe to say that many of us have found strong and lasting friendships within the workplace. Let’s face it, we all spend a lot of time at work so connecting with others, sharing social experiences, laughs and confidences with friends adds to and supports the experience of our professional lives. However, it can also bring drama if the personal lives of your employees seep into the professional arena. Case in point is the following drama that ended up in a Fair Work hearing….
Let’s Start at the End…
The Fair Work Commission upheld the sacking of an employee after she punched a co-workerd in the face. Most of us would deem this fair and reasonable, especially those of us who have had to manage inappropriate workplace behaviour.
The employee concerned however lodged an unfair dismissal claim and requested reinstatement, back pay and compensation arguing the matter was a personal dispute. As part of the argument, she believed that as her co-worker was on his break and that she had clocked off, the altercation occurred outside of work time. The Fair Work Commission said no.
How Did It Start
About a month before the punch, the co-worker who was on the receiving end of the punch, broke up with his girlfriend. The girlfriend was also a good friend of the employee who did the punching. A conversation between the two as to how the ex-boyfriend handled a situation with his ex-girlfriend precipitated the punch. According to the employee who landed the punch, her colleague didn’t respond appropriately to her friend so…BAM.
The punched employee immediately reported the incident to his manager but no action was taken so he escalated it to higher management three weeks later. When confronted with her action by management, the employee admitting hitting her co-worker and was summarily dismissed.
Why Wasn’t it Personal?
While the employee argued it was a personal matter, legal precedent in a case called Rose v Telstra established that out of hours conduct can still result in valid termination of employment. In the decision, the then deputy president of the FWC outlined the following circumstances need to be met to result in a valid dismissal:
In this instance, the FWC believed there was irreparable damage to the relationship between the employer and the employee in that they had reason to be concerned that there was a risk of further incidents. This plays into the matter also becoming an issue of workplace health and safety and the risk posed to other employees. As an employer, workplace health and safety obligations take priority and the employer had the right to terminate the employee as a consequence.
What Can We Learn
Positive workplace relationships underpin the culture of any business and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the connections moving into the private sphere. However, when things turn sour, employers have the right and the obligation to protect their employees from violent and/or damaging conduct whether or not it occurs in the workplace or off site.
As an employer you need to gauge the level of the altercation – is it simply angry words over who ate the last donut or has it escalated to unacceptable physical violence? You have an obligation to investigate and act on allegations of violence.
If you require support investigating a workplace incident, please contact the HR Staff n’ Stuff team for a confidential conversation regarding your situation.
The HR Staff n' Stuff team all contribute to our blogs. Enjoy the read!