Fair Work awards $5000 to employee who was sacked over “unfriendly” messages with no emojis

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Source: Splash.

A woman has been awarded more than $5000 after she was sacked for not being friendly enough with her manager, raising questions of legality about what to do when subordinates and leaders don’t get along.

The case highlights two important points for employers to consider, says Fay Calderone, employment law expert and partner at Hall & Wilcox.

One, managers can’t legally sack an employee if they just don’t mesh.

“There needs to be a proper and lawful basis for terminating and procedural fairness, the extent of which will differ based on the size of the business noting small businesses compliance is limited to the requirements of the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code (although they may go beyond this as a matter of best practice),” Calderone said.

Two, it’s in the best interest of employers to be skilled and trained in managing conflict in the workplace. Calderone suggests a code of conduct and a grievance policy.

Getting these things wrong can cost a small business big bucks.

But, Calderone said: “The time and cost in defending these matters in the commission and the brand damage they cause to businesses and/or employers and the reputational damage they cause to individuals of course far outweighs this.”

It all began when Kristen Gordon was working as a supervisor within Sens Catering Group — which owns Goya Cafe at Broadbeach, Sens at Southport, and Sens cafe in Brisbane — owned by Jerry Chen and managed by Phoebe Wang.

In March, Gordon clashed with Wang in a series of messages over resourcing. Gordon said she felt the group needed to hire more staff so they would not be shuttled between two locations.

In the exchange, Gordon also pointed out that, prior to Wang joining as manager, they had typically rostered on five, not four, staff across the weekend “rush”.

But a manager who was alongside Wang upon her receipt of Gordon’s messages said “Fire her right now … hire another supervisor, I don’t care about the cost”, the commission heard.

It also heard Wang thought Gordon was coming across as “unfriendly” because her employee “didn’t add any smiley faces, there are no emotions”.

Gordon was sacked the next day.

She said she was told “the business is getting rid of any staff that didn’t agree with the owners”, and commissioner Chris Simpson said in his judgement he accepted Gordon believed “dismissal was initiated out of personal feelings by Ms Wang”.

And the bad blood seemed to run deeper than rostering. Gordon was still in contact with the general manager prior to Wang taking the role, something that Wang was openly irritated by and had instructed Gordon against several times.

Gordon says Wang had pushed her to resign several times — even telling her “go to Fair Work … we don’t care”.

Simpson ordered Sens Catering Group to pay Gordon $5357.80 in compensation, plus 9.5% superannuation on that amount, with Simpson considering in his judgement Gordon’s undertaking of an IVF procedure during the time she was terminated.

“The evidence supports a conclusion that [Gordon] was merely trying to express a view as to what would be in the best interests of the business in regard to staffing across the two venues,” he said.

“There is nothing else to support a conclusion that her actions constituted a valid reason for dismissal.

“At the time of termination, [Gordon] was undergoing a fertility program and Ms Wang was aware of this.”

Calderone says this was the logical conclusion to the case, particularly considering the group’s owner, Chen, had written to Fair Work to say that Gordon was “a good worker”.

The takeaway from the whole matter?

“Leaders matter in business,” Calderone said.

“They are the heart and soul of the employer and can make or break relationships with employees.

“In the wake of the ‘Great Resignation’ and the war for talent we are facing, putting aside the individual circumstances of this case, employers cannot afford to be losing good people because of personal gripes of managers.”

Sens Catering Group were approached for comment.

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