A former employee at NBN Co has had his unfair dismissal bid thrown out after he lost his job for refusing to enter into a payment plan to repay thousands of dollars in personal calls made from his work phone.
The unnamed applicant applied to the Fair Work Commission after he was found to have incurred around $7500 in international call costs in August last year on his company-issued mobile phone.
The applicant was notified about the phone bill and apologised to his manager, saying the calls were to family members in India.
Further investigations by NBN Co found a further $3200 worth of international calls between August 24 and September 11, 2014.
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When investigations were extended, NBN Co uncovered a total of $22,630 in international calls incurred by the applicant from May to September 2014.
The Fair Work Commission heard the applicant advised NBN Co he could not afford to pay back the phone bills as a lump sum, although he did pay $7500 in November last year.
In February this year, NBN Co issued the applicant with a warning letter regarding the misuse of his mobile phone and directed him to repay the outstanding amount under a repayment plan.
During negotiations over a repayment plan, NBN Co suggested a repayment plan that would see the outstanding money repaid by February 2016.
However, the applicant argued NBN’s policies relating to mobile phone use were not accessible and, the next month, said he was withdrawing his offer to repay the money until he received a more agreeable repayment plan.
After a number of meetings, NBN Co made a final offer for the repayment plan to the applicant but, when this was not accepted, he was advised his employment was terminated.
In her ruling, Fair Work Commission’s deputy president Anne Gooley said it was unreasonable for the former employee not to enter into a repayment plan.
“I do not consider that the mere existence of a debt provides an employer with a valid reason to terminate the employment of an employee,” Gooley said in her judgement.
“However, I find in this case that there was no reasonable basis for the applicant to dispute the debt. As such, it was unreasonable of him not to enter into an agreement to repay the monies.”
As a result, the former NBN employee’s case was dismissed.
Sarah Lock, principal lawyer at Workplace Law Group, told SmartCompany workplace disputes involving company-issued mobile phones are very common.
“Sometimes mobile phones are given to staff for personal use,” Lock says.
“I’ve seen situations where that occurs.”
Lock says the lesson in this case for small businesses is to have clear policies in place that outline what is expected of employees when it comes to company property.
“In particular, is the phone just for work purposes or can it be used for personal use?” she says.
“If you do not have a policy in place or it is not regularly reviewed and employees are not aware of this, then it is extremely hard for an employer to use the policy as a defence against this type of phone usage. It may even be useful for employers to consider pre-paid phone cards as a way of managing the employee’s usage.”
A spokesperson for NBN Co told SmartCompany the government-owned company was pleased with the decision.
“We are pleased that NBN was found to have handled the dismissal process appropriately,” the NBN spokesperson said.
“As is always the case, we are reviewing the way we can further enhance the communication of our policies to our employees.”
The former NBN Co employee could not be contacted for comment.