A man fired from his parent’s business for showing up late to Sunday dinner has been awarded $10,000 in compensation after appealing to the Fair Work Commission (FWC).
In a case heard by the independent umpire earlier this month, which tested the boundaries between family matters and workplace law, the commission found personal conflict between a son and his parents was not a valid reason for dismissal.
The owner of the Victorian-based family business, which specialises in automotive repairs, fired his son on the spot on a Sunday evening in March, following an argument sparked by his alleged tardiness.
The commission heard relations within the family had been strained for at least a month, with the son told he was to leave the house and never return to the business at the conclusion of a heated exchange.
The former worker filed for unfair dismissal less than a month after being fired, kicking off a legal process that started with an unsuccessful conciliation and, ultimately, an FWC determination.
Commissioner McKinnon was required to determine whether the dismissal, the official reason for which was listed as “arriving late for a family dinner”, was harsh, unjust or unreasonable.
It was found that the tardiness could not be fairly characterised as work-related conduct.
“There is insufficient context before me to explain why arriving late for dinner would have been a valid reason for dismissal,” McKinnon said.
“I am not satisfied that it was.”
The worker brought the unfair dismissal case after purportedly having trouble accessing unemployment benefits due to the manner in which he was dismissed from his job.
But while the business owners attended conciliation, they did not attend the FWC hearing, prompting the commission to utilise evidence provided by the former worker, including considering whether the small business has the capacity to pay compensation bill.
McKinnon said the case was “extremely sad” but noted the worker ultimately had a right to bring unfair dismissal proceedings against his parents.
“I am left in the dark as to any additional contextual matters that should or could have been taken into account when considering if the dismissal was unfair,” commissioner McKinnon said of the case.
“It is, to my mind, extremely sad that what was once a loving family has allowed relationships to deteriorate to the extent that they have.
“However, [the worker] has the right to bring this claim and I must deal with it accordingly.”
The ‘golden rule’ and buffer zones
The case is certainly not the first time resolving conflict within a family business has come up. Those SmartCompany has spoken with recently say personal relationships are an ongoing challenge within their companies.
Speaking in a recent webinar delving into the family business dynamic, John Kimbell, owner of family business NAS Australia, said the idea ongoing conflicts can be ‘left at the door’ so to speak is unrealistic.
“Work doesn’t stop when we go home,” the business owner said.
“It’s of the utmost importance that age-old adage that you treat someone as you would like to be treated yourself.
“Just because someone is a family member, it doesn’t allow you to treat them too familiarly without respect.”
Jason Kencevski, the second-generation chief executive of Speedmaster, said his family has set up “buffer zones” to ensure work conversations don’t get out of hand.
“Being a family business, the conversations don’t stop at work, they continue when you leave work,” Kencevski said.
“We added a buffer zone so there would be a third person in the mix.”
Kencevski said having empathy for the areas of the business other family members specialise in is also important.