Long-haired flight attendant wins unfair dismissal case

27 August 2013

An Australian airline has been ordered to reinstate a male employee dismissed for having long hair which contravened company grooming standards.

The ruling came after the Fair Work Commission examined the employee’s unfair dismissal claim and found that his medical condition legitimately prevented him from complying with the required hair-length standards.

The conflict began when the employee grew his hair long, telling his employer it was for religious reasons. Later, he explained that a body image disorder – a medical condition – was the reason he had grown his hair and was unable to comply with the short-hair policy outlined in the airline’s “Look Book”.

The employee supplied eight medical certificates attesting to his condition, and attempted to compromise by wearing a short wig to conceal his long hair. The airline’s management team declined his medical certificates and insisted that he cut his hair to comply with the policy.

Airline management eventually dismissed the employee, stating that he had not provided adequate documentation relating to his medical condition; had not demonstrated his intent to comply with the requirements of the role; and had not followed the company’s grievance resolution process.

When the Fair Work Commission examined the employee’s unfair dismissal claim, the commissioner found that there was inadequate reason for the employee’s dismissal. In particular, the commissioner found that the employee had attempted to comply with the airline’s policies to the best of his ability. The commissioner also noted that there was no evidence of previous disciplinary action and that the number of flight attendant roles available meant the employee could and should be reinstated. The airline was denied further appeal in the case.

iHR Australia Workplace Training EEO Anti-Bullying Contact Officer Workplace Investigation Officer Melbourne Sydney Canberra Perth Brisbane Adelaide

This case is noteworthy because of what it suggests about compliance with company policies. For employers, this case suggests that, in some special circumstances, substantive compliance with company policy may be enough, ahead of strict technical compliance. Employers are advised to tread carefully in instances where medical conditions prevent an employee from complying fully with policies, in spite of their best efforts.

One of the commissioner’s other criticisms was the process of the dismissal – the report suggests the decision to dismiss the employee had been made before the allegations were discussed with him. This particular aspect of the judgment speaks of the importance of procedural fairness in dismissal situations. In addition, the airline was found to have exempted another employee with similar needs from complying with the policy.

Finally, the case looks at the importance of workplace training to ensure all employees are aware of both the requirements of the role – in this instance, grooming guidelines – and the correct grievance resolution process, should an employee have any problems complying with the company’s policies. Comprehensive workplace training also needs to be provided for those dealing with grievances or performance issues to ensure that a fair process is followed.

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