Pub­li­ca­tions

Break­ing up is hard to do — Com­mu­ni­cat­ing ter­mi­na­tion of employment

HARD CON­VER­SA­TIONS

Two of the hard­est con­ver­sa­tions to have with any­one are end­ing a rela­tion­ship and ter­mi­nat­ing employment.

On the for­mer, the eti­quette guide Debrett’s gives this guid­ance on the appro­pri­ate method of communication:

Always meet up with your (soon-to-be-ex) part­ner; email and text are a sav­age and bru­tal mode of rela­tion­ship tor­ture”.

Sim­i­lar­ly, employ­ers can find the task of com­mu­ni­cat­ing the deci­sion to ter­mi­nate employ­ment par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. As with those seek­ing to end per­son­al rela­tion­ships, some man­agers try to min­imise the emo­tion­al impact by avoid­ing inform­ing the employ­ee of the ter­mi­na­tion deci­sion in per­son. Alter­na­tive meth­ods used include phone, text or email.

In the recent Fair Work Com­mis­sion (FWC) deci­sion of Ani­ta Cachia v Sco­bel Pty Ltd ATF The S & J Trust t/​a Emerse Skin and Laser [2018] FWC 2648, a deci­sion regard­ing an unfair dis­missal appli­ca­tion where the Small Busi­ness Fair Dis­missal Code applied, Deputy Pres­i­dent Sams, in reject­ing that appli­ca­tion and find­ing the dis­missal not to be unfair, nev­er­the­less made the fol­low­ing observation:

If there be one crit­i­cism of the process it is this. Mr McLen­nan informed the appli­cant of her dis­missal by phone. I do not con­sid­er that inform­ing an employ­ee of their dis­missal by phone, text or email, to be an appro­pri­ate means of con­vey­ing a deci­sion which has such seri­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions for employ­ee. As there had already been one meet­ing with Mrs McLen­nan, I can see no rea­son why a fur­ther meet­ing could not have been organ­ised for the pur­pose of explain­ing the respondent’s deci­sion and dis­cussing the ter­mi­na­tion arrange­ments. That said, I accept the respon­dent has no human resource or indus­tri­al rela­tions exper­tise or expe­ri­ence and had relied on the Commission’s Web­site infor­ma­tion and the terms of the Code to effect the applicant’s dis­missal. I note that there is no stat­ed require­ment in the Code (or the Code’s check­list) that the employ­er must con­vey the dis­missal deci­sion, in per­son. How­ev­er, I con­sid­er it would only be in rare cir­cum­stances that a deci­sion to dis­miss an employ­ee should not be con­veyed in per­son. For exam­ple, it may be nec­es­sary where the employ­er believes a dis­missed employ­ee might be a threat to the safe­ty of his/​her employ­ees or because the employ­ee express­ly did not want a face-to-face” meet­ing to hear the out­come of any dis­ci­pli­nary process.”

Deputy Pres­i­dent Sams quot­ed with approval the fol­low­ing obser­va­tions made by Com­mis­sion­er Cam­bridge in the deci­sion of Knut­son v Ches­son Pty Ltd t/​a Pay Per Click [2018] FWC 2080:

The employ­er pro­vid­ed noti­fi­ca­tion of dis­missal by email com­mu­ni­ca­tion sent at 8.53 pm on 6 Novem­ber 2017. Noti­fi­ca­tion of dis­missal should not be made by email com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Unless there is some gen­uine appre­hen­sion of phys­i­cal vio­lence or geo­graph­i­cal imped­i­ment, the mes­sage of dis­missal should be con­veyed face to face. To do oth­er­wise is unnec­es­sar­i­ly cal­lous. Even in cir­cum­stances where email or elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions are ordi­nar­i­ly used, the advice of ter­mi­na­tion of employ­ment is a mat­ter of such sig­nif­i­cance that basic human dig­ni­ty requires that dis­missal be con­veyed per­son­al­ly with arrange­ments for the pres­ence of a sup­port per­son and doc­u­men­tary confirmation.”

FACE­BOOK MESSENGER

A sim­i­lar issue, ter­mi­na­tion by Face­book Mes­sen­ger (a func­tion on the social media site akin to text mes­sag­ing), was can­vassed in the case of Ms Jay­mi-Lee Mor­ris v Alphaeus Hair Salon [2018] FWC 2642

In this deci­sion Com­mis­sion­er Rior­dan con­sid­ered a ter­mi­na­tion of employ­ment that had been effect­ed dur­ing a late night Face­book Mes­sen­ger exchange (repro­duced in full in the judg­ment, replete with insults, exple­tives and spelling errors).
The exchange was the main evi­dence con­sid­ered by the FWC in this case as the Respon­dent did not par­tic­i­pate in the proceedings.

In con­sid­er­ing whether the Appli­cant had been noti­fied of the rea­son for ter­mi­na­tion, Com­mis­sion­er Rior­dan stat­ed:
I have tak­en into account that the con­ver­sa­tion” between the Appli­cant and Respon­dent took place over a social media plat­form late at night. I am unaware of the sobri­ety or capac­i­ty of either indi­vid­ual dur­ing this recourse (sic). I find that the Respon­dent did not pro­vide the Appli­cant with a rea­son for her termination.”

In respect of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to respond Com­mis­sion­er Rior­dan held:

The Appli­cant was not pro­vid­ed with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to respond to her ter­mi­na­tion. As pre­vi­ous­ly stat­ed, this dis­course occurred over a social media plat­form and appears to have esca­lat­ed from a sim­ple enquiry to an unfor­tu­nate con­clu­sion. I have tak­en this into account.” 

Con­tin­u­ing the theme, Com­mis­sion­er Rior­dan on refusal by employ­er to have a sup­port per­son noted:

The con­ver­sa­tion was not a dis­ci­pli­nary meet­ing but what appears to be a reg­u­lar chat on face­book which spi­ralled out of con­trol. I have tak­en this into account.”

This deci­sion rein­forces the (fair­ly obvi­ous) propo­si­tion that a heat­ed Face­book Mes­sen­ger exchange is not a prop­er way to effect ter­mi­na­tion of employment. 

LESSONS FOR EMPLOYERS

  1. In the absence of excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances, an employ­er should inform the employ­ee of a deci­sion to ter­mi­nate their employ­ment in per­son; a text, email or phone call will not usu­al­ly suffice.
  2. The excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances that might jus­ti­fy an alter­na­tive approach being adopt­ed include where there are geo­graph­i­cal imped­i­ments or where there is a gen­uine con­cern that a secu­ri­ty risk aris­es from inform­ing the employ­ee in per­son. In such cas­es, the rea­sons for not inform­ing the employ­ee in per­son should be specif­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fied and form the basis of the deci­sion pri­or to the ter­mi­na­tion being effect­ed, rather than being used as an ex post fac­to jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.
  3. Where the ter­mi­na­tion is not being effect­ed in per­son explore meth­ods which mit­i­gate the impact of adopt­ing such an approach, such as video conferencing.