Listed companies face unfair dismissal claims following Banking Royal Commission

By Lachlan Thorburn. Published at Apr 18, 2019, in Features

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With the historic royal commission into banking recently wrapping up, some of Australia’s biggest listed companies have seen a spate of unfair dismissal rulings levelled against them.

The significant increase in unfair dismissal claims in the industry is largely due to the Australian Banking Association’s new ‘conduct background check’ protocol, which requires the employer to share the reasons why an employee ended his or her previous employment.

According to commercial law and industrial relations experts Bennett & Philp, companies can never fully eliminate the risk of an unfair dismissal claim following the termination of an employee. However, carrying out a correct ‘show cause’ procedure will ensure that business owners minimise the risk of successful litigation.

“Once an employer learns of serious misconduct behavior, you need to take swift and decisive action, raise any allegations to the employee, allow the employee to respond to the allegations and then make a decision if the employment relationship can continue,” says Bennett & Philp employment expert, Lachlan Thorburn.

“Whether it’s a listed company in the tech industry or a fintech start-up, examples of serious misconduct include theft, dishonesty, IP breach, sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and breaches of workplace health and safety.

“If the employee’s conduct falls into one of these categories, it is strongly recommended that business owners follow the below steps to minimise the risk of successful litigation against the business.”

To simplify this complex and often sensitive matter, Mr Thorburn briefly outlines the steps employers should take to ensure the investigation process and any ‘show cause’ is undertaken in a considered and professional manner.

  1. Undertake a thorough investigation

Terminating an employee in your financial business needs to be a considered decision, not an impulsive one. You must thoroughly investigate the allegations that have been made against the employee.

Prior to commencing an investigation, it is recommended that a business owner should seek legal advice as to how the investigation should be conducted. This may also have implications as to whether the investigation report will be the subject of legal professional privilege.

Before issuing the employee with a ‘show cause’ notice, the employer must be satisfied the findings of the investigation warrant an explanation from the employee.

  1. Meet with the employee

This is an opportunity to present the worker with the ‘show cause’ notice, which sets out the alleged conduct engaged by the employee and how that conduct may have breached material terms of the employment agreement and/or company policies.

The ‘show cause’ notice will allow the employee 1 to 5 days to respond, depending on the nature of the conduct. Always provide the employee with an opportunity to have a support person present at this meeting.

  1. Stand down the employee

Whether an employee should be stood down following the employer providing the ‘show cause’ notice will depend on:

a) the nature of the allegations;

b) the size of the employer (i.e. is there another area that the employee can work during the investigation); and/or

c) whether the accused employee’s attendance at the workplace will impact the impartial nature of any ongoing investigation (i.e. the prospect of retaliation or intimidation by the accused).

An employee should be stood down, on full pay, when the allegations are of a serious nature.

  1. Arrange a second meeting

Once the written response has been received and considered by the employer, or their legal representative, the employer should call a second meeting with the employee whereby his or her response to the allegations are discussed. At this time, the employer may determine that:

a) the employee should be given further time to provide additional information;

b) that the ongoing employment relationship is untenable;

c) that the employee has no case to answer; or

d) the employee should be issued with a warning, which in some cases is a first and final warning.

If the employer is satisfied the alleged serious misconduct occurred, then the employer can provide the employee with a notice of termination. Again, the employee should be afforded an opportunity to have a support person present at this meeting.

Of course, this is a process no employer ever looks forward to undertaking, but these recommended steps will minimise the risk of successful litigation.

About Bennett & Philp

Bennett & Philp is a leading provider of solutions-focused legal services to large corporates, small and medium enterprises and individuals.

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