Rude text accidentally sent to boss: how to avoid poisonous office relationships
A dismissed employee has failed to convince the Fair Work Commission that an accidentally-sent text to her employer, in which she called him a "complete d-ck", was a "lighthearted insult".
The office administrator/bookkeeper for a mineral explorer had meant to send the text to a plumber who was to conduct work at its new premises. In the text to the plumber — who was her daughter's boyfriend — she sought to warn him about her employer.
Describing her boss as "a complete d.ck" she said: ". . . we know this already so please try your best not to tell him that regardless of how you feel the need. . ." The advice proved not to be useful, given that FWC records describe the plumber and the boss engaging in an “incident” at the premises that afternoon.
After realising she had sent the message to her boss, she immediately sent two apologetic follow-up texts, asking him to delete them without reading them (“…please delete without reading. I am so so so sorry. Xxx”) and attributing the message to her sense of humour, which involved exaggeration.
The day after texting her boss she sent an email to the Board's two non-executive directors seeking a meeting and asking that they not discuss the situation – which she described as "serious" - with her boss until she has spoken to them. The Directors refused the meeting as it was an operational matter.
The Commissioner rejected her submission that the text should have been considered in the context of the intended recipient, nor "that she lives with young people who put 'complete' in front of every second word".
"In my view [she] was, in colloquial terms, sharing her assessment. . ." the Commissioner said.
In fact it was reasonable to conclude she was the "purveyor of the view that [the employer] is a 'complete d.ck'," he said
"To call a person a 'd.ck' is a derogatory term to describe an idiot or a fool. The word 'complete' is used to convey the message that the person is, without exception, an idiot or a fool – they are nothing less than a 'd.ck'."
Her employer said the text was highly offensive, derogatory and a shock given [her] position as an employee and the long working relationship. Following a meeting with the directors, the company summarily dismissed the office administrator for gross misconduct.
The Commissioner said the text message was "far from a 'light hearted insult', it was a hurtful and unpleasant appraisal of the chairman and managing director of her employer. . ." He also noted the employee's assumption that it was acceptable to then apologise, provide implausible reasons and attempt to reformulate the incident, all via text messages.
The administration assistant, who earned $95,000 a year, failed to convince the tribunal that there had not been serious breakdown in their working relationship.
"In my view the issue of trust and confidence is far more acute when consideration is given to the closeness of the employment relationship. With two people in the employment relationship and one absent for significant periods of time, trust and confidence is an absolute necessity," the Commissioner said.
As regards the employee's challenge to the notion that an accidental, out-of-context text message could be considered gross misconduct, the Commissioner said "accidental or not, what matters is the content of the text message."
The Commissioner accepted that the employer was entitled to summarily dismiss the employee under the terms of the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code.
iHR believes it is possible to avoid breakdowns in staff relationships by having Professional and Courageous Conversations as a manager / team leader or supervisor. iHR’s program aims to equip staff with the knowledge and skills to effectively address difficult, conflict-ridden situations and the skills and confidence to professionally conduct appropriate discussions and achieve positive results.