industrial relations

Abetz OK with Hutchinson firing workers by text message but lawyer says it’s not a great idea

Eloise Keating /

 

Sacking a worker via a text message or email can be justified in particular circumstances, according to Federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz.

After Hutchinson Ports Australia fired 97 workers in Sydney and Brisbane last week by text messages sent at midnight, the minister told media outlets on Friday while he wasn’t aware of the circumstances, firing someone using a text message may be “appropriate” in the context of some industrial agreements.

“I don’t know what the culture is in that particular workplace about communication between employee and employers – and if the culture is that employees can text message the boss and they, in fact, expect the boss to text message them, then that might be an appropriate methodology,” Abetz said, according to Fairfax.

“I’m not going to comment on it, other than given whatever the culture might be, you want employees and employers to treat each other with respect and due consideration.”

During questioning in the Senate yesterday, Abetz clarified his position after Labor Senator Doug Cameron asked him if he really endorses sacking workers via text message.

“The particular EBA if which we speak suggests that text messages and emails are the preferred method of communication between the boss and the workers,” Abetz said.

The minister also said the Hutchinson case is currently before the Fair Work Commission and all parties, including the union involved, should “respect” the commission’s interim orders.

“From my perspective, what I have said at all times is – and I repeat – that employers and employees should treat each other with respect and due consideration,” Abetz said.

However, employment lawyer Peter Vitale warns that while there is not anything “inherently unlawful” about terminating an employee via a text message, small businesses should steer clear of the method.

“I would say of all the cases where text or email has been used, it’s not a very attractive means of communicating with your employees, especially not when there is bad news to be delivered,” Vitale says.

Vitale says there have been numerous cases of employers firing workers via text message that have come before the Fair Work Commission and employers who use this method do open themselves up to risk.

“You do raise the prospect of an argument that it has an element of harshness,” Vitale says.

While Vitale says there may be exceptional circumstances where a text message or email is the only way an employer can contact an employee, including if the employee is deliberately making themselves unable to be contacted, his advice is to always have discussions about the terminating an employee in person.

“As unpleasant as the conversations are, you won’t be criticised for communicating these sorts of decisions face-to-face,” Vitale says.

 

 

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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