Legal

Small business vindicated after firing assistant for lying about another staff member’s whereabouts

Emma Koehn /

A personal assistant has lost her unfair dismissal bid after her boss fired her for covering for the absences of another staff member, who asked her to do things like “put a cup of coffee on my desk” to make it appear they had been in the office.

At the end of 2016, the managing director of investment company Grandbridge summarily dismissed his personal assistant on the grounds of “serious misconduct”.

The reason for the dismissal centred around the fact that the assistant, who had been employed with the business since 2007, had lied to her boss about the whereabouts of a staff member who was a company director.

The managing director accessed his personal assistant’s emails and found a number of communications between her and the director. In these emails, the director had asked the assistant to lie to cover for when she was late.

These requests included that the assistant “make up some reason” for the director being late into the office, and that she set up the director’s desk so it would appear to the boss that she had been at work, when she wasn’t.

“Can you turn my computer on and if he gets back tell him I went to a meeting. Just make my office look like I was there. Maybe put a coffee cup on my desk near the computer,” the director requested.

“Done,” the assistant said in response.

The managing director of the company found these emails while also uncovering a larger plan by the other directors of the business to oust him from his role. The Fair Work Commission heard that the director had exercised voting rights without the managing director’s knowledge to remove him from his role, and then asked his personal assistant to put a password on the voting records so that he could not gain access to them.

Upon discovering these behaviours, the managing director sought to dismiss both the director and the personal assistant.

However, the assistant brought unfair dismissal proceedings, claiming that she didn’t know about the director’s plans, and said that her actions were “trivial” in the scheme of things.

The employer said her actions were a serious violation of the company’s code of conduct, but the assistant argued she was not aware that the company even had a code of conduct.

In deciding the case, Fair Work Commission deputy president Abbey Beaumont found there was no practical code of conduct used within the business, but that didn’t matter.

“The evidence before [the managing director] was that he believed [his assistant] had lied to him or otherwise engaged in deception. Serious misconduct as understood in the Code, takes its meaning from Regulation 1.07 and in doing so includes wilful or deliberate behaviour by an employee that is inconsistent with the continuation of the employment contract,” deputy president Beaumont said.

The commission found that even though the employee believed her conduct was “trivial”, deceiving the employer on any level could amount to serious misconduct.

“To cause an employer to believe something that was not true is not trivial conduct,” deputy president Beaumont said.

The business was therefore vindicated in the dismissal.

SmartCompany contacted Grandbridge for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication. The former employee could not be reached for comment.

“Being honest” is central to the workplace relationship

Small businesses should be regularly reminding their staff that lying at work is not on, no matter the stakes, says managing director at Workplace Law, Athena Koelmeyer.

“This can be expressed relatively simply, really, just by reminding people even over email. For example, ‘You may think it’s ok to cover for someone who’s leaving early, but it’s not.’ Remind people you can’t just have ‘a little bit of dishonesty’- it’s like being ‘a little bit pregnant’.”

Smaller operators should take comfort that the Fair Work Commission approaches the issue of dishonesty at work incredibly seriously, she says.

“The implied terms of fidelity, trust and confidence at work are core to the commission.”

Just because a workplace doesn’t have a code that forbids lying at work, doesn’t mean an employer can’t fire a worker for being dishonest. However, the best course of action to prevent having to act on this is to establish an expectation that staff don’t lie, even if this seems like low-impact or trivial behaviour, Koelmeyer says.

“This is something you can point out to staff, as a group.”

NOW READ: The game is changing for sacking staff over social media posts: Five unfair dismissal cases you need to know about

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior journalist at SmartCompany.

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