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Monty Pythonesque employee relations blasted by Fair Work Commission as employee wins nearly $100,000 in compensation

Good employee relations are crucial for business success, fostering teamwork and productivity.

Poor employee relations can land employers in court, as happened recently with a State Education Department.

 

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The Department was ordered to pay a sacked whistleblower primary school teacher $87,000. Furthermore, its actions were rebuked and its defence likened to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The teacher was sacked for "disgraceful, improper or unbecoming" conduct after she aired grievances at a school meeting.

The decision follows a finding that the Department exposed the teacher to unnecessary costs by responding to her remedy application "on a false and unreasonable basis", arguing against giving her job back and insisting it had a valid reason for dismissal after it had already conceded it was harsh, and withdrawing evidence.

The Commission criticised the Department for stubbornly sticking to its guns — like the pet shop owner in Monty Python's dead parrot sketch — as its Fair Work case fell apart.

It also rebuked the Department not acting on the teacher’s allegations of “nepotism” and “bullying” and not properly supporting the Principal.

The teacher was sacked last January and almost immediately launched an unfair dismissal case.
The Department attempted to justify its actions based on the word of the Principal and the Regional Director. However, during hearings the Department’s legal team withdrew much of the evidence of the abovementioned individuals and conceded the sacking could be found to be harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

Despite this, the Department continued to argue the dismissal was valid, prompting the Commissioner to liken the Department’s behaviour to the pet shop owner who insisted his dead parrot nailed to its perch was only sleeping; and the Black Knight who insists that losing one arm “Tis but a scratch”, no arms, “It’s just a flesh wound”, and no limbs left said “We’ll call it a draw”.

“The same sense of absurdity is found in the actions of the [Department],” the Commissioner said.

The teacher began teaching for the Department in 2006, and at the school in January 2008. She took workers compensation leave in June 2011 due to mental health issues related to alleged workplace bullying, returning to work in November 2013 when a Department-appointed doctor advised that a mediator should minimise further tensions among the staff.

“This mediation did not occur and further tensions arose,” a Fair Work Commissioner said in a decision in October 2015.

In March 2014, the teacher told the Department that leading teachers were being appointed without due process.

But the Department did not respond to the teacher’s email, and launched an investigation what it claimed was her own “unprofessional and inappropriate behaviour”.

This is despite the fact that the Principal later conceded appointments were not done properly.

The teacher was sacked last January for reading a prepared statement to a whole school meeting, for sending four emails using the school staff distribution list criticising colleagues and the school’s leadership, continuing after being ordered to cease and for a “disgraceful” interaction with another staff member.

Details of what was said were not included in the decisions but the Commissioner said none warranted her “harsh, unjustified and unreasonable dismissal”.

The Commissioner said the teacher, the acting principal and the school community "were all let down by the Department" which was "clearly on notice there were serious issues at the school under the leadership of the previous principal".

He said the school had a "high proportion of staff on workers compensation leave" and had arranged an "independent health and wellbeing pulse check" in 2011, but had apparently done little to respond to the issues identified - it was also aware of complaints from the teacher going back to 2010.

Not only had the Department provided "little or no guidance" to the then Acting Principal in facilitating the teacher's return to work but there was "absolutely nothing" in the content of the teacher's statement, nor the time, place or manner in which she read it that could sustain its finding, The Commissioner said. He said the teacher's "only critical failure" in sending emails via the entire school distribution list was that it included a parent who was also the school council's chair.

The Commissioner observed that the Department had let down the entire school community by not taking an active role resolving the school’s problems. It should have offered guidance to then Acting Principal when the teacher returned to work in 2013 as she had only been in the role for a short time.

iHR believe prevention is the best cure. iHR’s on-site training program Employee Relations 101 for HR professionals covers relevant employment legislation, associated practices and guiding principles in relation to people management, and can be delivered at the convenience of your premises. This program will also focus on risk mitigation when managing people and on the role of effective Employee Relations management in meeting business objectives as well as compliance obligations. Contact iHR on 1300 884 687 or make an online enquiry today to find out more.

 

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