Bluescope Steel employee reinstated after botched investigation

A Bluescope Steel employee of 23 years has been reinstated by the Fair Work Commission, after it found the company’s operations manager had botched an investigation into his misconduct.

In his ruling delivered last week, Commissioner Bernie Riordan said the dismissal of Michael Duncan, a control room operator, was “harsh, unjust or unreasonable”. Riordan believed the working relationship could be salvaged, and so ruled that Duncan be reinstated.

The dismissal occurred after Duncan, one of four employees with responsibility to check the batteries on one of Bluescope’s Coke Plant 1, failed to respond to an alarm about the temperatures on the battery.

Even though Duncan was one of four employees with responsibility for the alarm, he alone was issued with a “show cause” letter about the incident, and later dismissed from his role.

In dismissing Duncan, Commissioner Riordan said, Coke Plant 1 operations manager Landon Ronay came to form “a view based on a personal notion of responsibility which has never existed in this Control Room”.

“If Ronay was going to change the historic work practice, the policy or the pragmatic operation of the control room, then the regulator operators and their supervisors were entitled to be advised,” Riordan said.

In the control room, the responsibility for checking the alarm was allocated casually, and the four operators took turns to check on the alarms. At the time of his dismissal, Duncan was eating lunch, and so had assumed one of his colleagues would check the alarm.

A lot of the problems in the dismissal, the commissioner said, could have been avoided had Bluescope’s human resources team become involved earlier, as the operations manager had no experience conducting such investigations.

“The involvement of HR in this process was too late,” Riordan said. “There are numerous and obvious questions that should have been asked to a number of Mr Duncan’s colleagues that were simply not raised.”

Industrial relations lawyer Peter Vitale tells SmartCompany a significant factor in the decision was that the Bluescope plant operations manager accepted evidence of one employee over that of Duncan, even though the other employee had been shown to be unreliable in the past.

“But the overwhelming thing was that all four employees involved should have shared responsibility and should have been issued with warnings.”

The case emphasises the need for employers to deal consistently with their employees, especially in disciplinary matters, Vitale said.

“It is critical that the action taken against one or more employees be consistent, and proportionate to each individual employee’s degree of fault,” Vitale says. “That was clearly something that Bluescope failed to do in this case.

“The second thing is that if you are conducting investigations into issues of this nature, then it’s important that the investigations are done thoroughly, and that the evidence of the various witnesses is given appropriate weight.”

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