Legal

Qantas cleared of harsh dismissal on appeal after firing staff member for taking booze off flight

Emma Koehn /

The full bench of the Fair Work Commission has found Qantas had a right to terminate the employment of a flight attendant who took alcohol off a long-haul service, in a decision that one lawyer says highlights the seriousness of workplace theft, regardless of the dollar value.

In November 2016, Fair Work Commission deputy president Lawrence found the Australian airline had been harsh in its termination of an employee who had been with the company for 28 years.

Qantas terminated the staff member’s employment because it alleged he had removed Qantas Group alcohol from a flight between Perth and Sydney in February 2016, which was discovered during a random search of the crew. Qantas alleged the employee made misleading claims when asked how the alcohol came to be in his possession.

This included a claim that a miniature bottle of Beefeater Gin found in the staff member’s possession had come from his wife, who he claimed obtained it when the couple had lunch with friends the day before the flight. When Qantas investigated this claim, it was discovered the hotel where the staff member claimed supplied the gin did not stock that product.

The employee launched unfair dismissal proceedings when he was dismissed in April. In its original decision, the Fair Work Commission found the dismissal had been harsh, taking into account the staff member’s 28 years of unblemished service, the small value of the items stolen and the impact of the dismissal on the worker’s ability to find another job. Qantas was ordered to pay $33,000 in compensation.

However, this decision was overturned at the end of March after Qantas appealed, with the full bench of the Commission deciding the inconsistencies in the staff member’s account of how he came to have the alcohol should have been given more weight, and the employee was aware his actions were in breach of company policy.

“Dishonesty in employment is a serious matter”

Employment lawyer Peter Vitale says that while it’s unusual to have the Commission overturn unfair dismissal cases on appeal, the full bench has clearly decided the worker’s actions in this case were more important than the employee’s specific circumstances.

“They addressed the reasons why the dismissal was found to be harsh — his age, and other mitigating circumstances. Then the full bench has reached a finding that those circumstances didn’t outweigh the seriousness of the conduct that he engaged in,” Vitale explains.

The decision suggests that employees taking items from a workplace that don’t belong to them is a serious matter, Vitale says, because the full bench decided in this case the offence was worthy of termination, regardless of its relatively small value.

“The full bench has made it clear that outright theft, regardless of value, is not acceptable,” he says.

“The full bench reinforced that dishonesty and theft in employment are extremely matters.”

However, Vitale believes the ability of Qantas to successfully defend itself comes down to the company’s strong code of conduct policies and its ability to display correct procedure was followed in dealing with the case.

It’s a reminder to all businesses that there is value in following processes, making codes of conduct abundantly clear to employees, and giving them a chance to respond to concerns.

“I guess it reflects the employer’s status as a well established, large company. It reflects the well-established and efficient practice on part of employer to have all the policies in place, before terminating employees.”

SmartCompany contacted Qantas but the company declined not to provide further comment. SmartCompany was unable to contact the former Qantas employee prior to publication.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior journalist at SmartCompany.

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