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Recent Privacy Act Changes

The Federal Parliament has recently passed the Privacy Amendment (Notifiable Data Breaches) Bill 2016 (Cth) which provides for mandatory notification of ‘serious data breaches’ to the Australian Information Commissioner and to those individuals whose data is suspected to be affected by a breach. Currently, the Privacy Act does not impose an obligation on entities to notify the Commissioner or any individuals whose personal information has been compromised.

Rather, the scheme is voluntary and entities are only encouraged to comply with the OIAC’s guide on how to handle data breaches.

The introduction of the changes has the support of major interest groups and is said to be largely beneficial for individuals, businesses and the Australian government. However, as the changes will not apply to those exempt from the Privacy Act, such as small businesses with an annual turnover of less than $3 million, few have questioned the limited application of the changes. Having said that, businesses with less than $3 million turnover must comply if they are:

  • Private sector health services
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Knowing when abandonment of employment is official

Abandonment of employment arises where an employee absents themselves from the workplace without reasonable excuse, and/or has failed to communicate with their employer the reason for the absence. In these situations, it is essential that the employee has demonstrated an intention to no longer be bound by the terms of the contract.

Often we are asked: at what point is it safe to assume that abandonment has occurred? Or, during a period of unexplained and continued absence, when is it reasonable to conclude that an employee is gone for good? While few modern awards specifically provide for circumstances where an employee will be deemed to have abandoned their employment, the answer is far from straightforward. As evident in the following case, employers will fall into legal trouble if they jump the gun and declare abandonment too soon.

In a recent case heard by the FWC[1], an employee was deemed to have abandoned his employment after he failed to show up to work for a fortnight. Despite previous warnings

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FWC rules to cut Sunday and Public Holiday Penalty Rates

FWC rules to cut Sunday and Public Holiday Penalty Rates

In a landmark decision handed down this week, the FWC has ruled to cut Sunday and Public Holiday penalty rates, which will impact over 1 million Australian’s. The decision comes after the Hospitality and retail sectors made applications to vary penalty rate provisions as part of the Fair Work Commission's four-yearly review of awards. However, the announcement has been greeted with mixed reviews, with some business groups arguing that businesses will benefit from the changes though:

  • Increased trading hours and services offered on Sundays and Public Holidays.
  • Potential for businesses to generate more revenue.
  • Increased shifts for workers and overall hours worked.
  • Allowing businesses to hire more staff.

Nonetheless, the decision has been widely criticised by unions and affected parties, with the president of the ACTU stating that many workers will not be able to survive on the considerable pay cut. A summary of the changes are outlined below.

The FWC rejected the argument sought by businesses that Sunday rates

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No compensation for reasonable management action

Often an aggrieved or distressed employee will claim to have suffered psychological injury as a result of an employer addressing performance issues or concerns with the employee. However, these claims will fail where it can be shown that the employer’s action was reasonable in the circumstances.

For example, under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (Cth), referred to in the High Court case below, reasonable management action includes:

 

  • Performance appraisal
  • Counselling
  • Suspension or standing down of duties
  • Disciplinary action
  • Anything done in connection with the employee's failure to obtain a promotion or transfer.

This definition is consistent with the courts’ interpretation of other legislation including the Fair Work Act 2009 and state-based workers compensation legislation.

But the question of what is ‘reasonable’ and what is not is often unclear. Courts accept that management actions don’t need to be ‘perfect’, and  will take into account a number of considerations including the facts and circumstances that led to the need for action, how the action was carried out and the consequences

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Recognising a ‘sham’ contract

A sham contract refers to an agreement in which an employer attempts to disguise an employment relationship as an independent contractor arrangement. This is done with the intention ofavoiding paying employee entitlements such as superannuation, workers compensation, leave, and certain taxes. Doing this not only significantly reduces costs, but also eliminates an employer’s vicarious liability for the wrongdoing of itsemployees.

However, employers should think twice before presuming they have found a loophole in the system;these arrangements are punishable under the sham contracting provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009, and companies can face a hefty fine of up to $54,000 in the event of a breach. In addition, employers may also be liable for underpayment claims, payroll tax, superannuation payments and be exposed to unfair dismissal claims.

In a recent case heard by FWC[1], it was determined that a worker had access to unfair dismissal after it was found he wasmisrepresented as an independent contractor when in reality he was an employee.The FWC stated that the employer

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Discrimination on the basis of a criminal record

Employers are in a difficult situation when an otherwise suitable job candidate applies for a position but after pre employment screening, a criminal record surfaces and the red flag is raised. On the one hand, former offenders (just like everyone else) should be afforded equal opportunity in finding employment. Having said that, employers want to be confident that the people they hire are honest and reliable.

The number of complaints to the AHRC from people alleging employer discrimination on the basis of criminal record has skyrocketed. This indicates that further guidance is needed in this area. Importantly, employers must remember that requesting a criminal record check is only necessary if a criminal record may impact the person’s ability to perform the inherent requirements of the role.

In a recent case heard by the AHRC[1], a Data #3 employee claimed that the company discriminated against him when he was dismissed because of a ‘serious criminal record’. The employee claimed that he asked on two occasions during the interview process

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When does banter between co-workers cross the line?

Workplace culture can heavily influence the way co-workers interact with one another. The trouble is, when the culture is laid back, it becomes all too easy for the lines of acceptable and inappropriate conduct to become blurred. Ultimately, this can lead to a fall out between colleagues and can contribute to an undesirable (and potentially unhealthy or unsafe) working environment. In these situations, employers must uphold their obligations and take reasonable disciplinary action where necessary.

In a recent case before the FWC[1], a mineworker was dismissed for making a number of derogatory Islamophobic and sexist comments over a two way radio which were heard by over 100 employees. The employee argued that the use of the radio was an attempt to avoid fatigue and the channel he used was commonly referred to as the ‘chat channel’. He also maintained that he had not been trained in the company policies regarding unacceptable conduct, and his behavior was not inappropriate as he had heard similar comments over the radio from

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The ‘silly season’

With a busy month ahead for many businesses holding work social functions and Christmas parties it is a good time to consider your workplace policies and practices and how they apply to social functions and behaviour that is outside the usual office or work space.

Social Functions

Employee behaviour at work social functions or Christmas parties is subject to workplace policies and must also meet certain standards. A social functions policy may, for example, cover alcohol consumption, appropriate conduct and gift-giving guidelines. It may be useful at this time of year to remind employees what policies are in place, when these apply and that in some instances they cover behaviour outside of the office.

On a practical or common-sense note, planning ahead will give you an edge. Prior to any work function consider possible risks or issues and manage them ahead of time. For example, do you need to arrange transport or taxi vouchers for employees to get home after a work function.

Good workplace policies offer many benefits to

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Can you be sacked for your Facebook comments?

In today’s society, employees are connected in many ways. Not only do they work together but if they are friends on Facebook or connected via LinkedIn, then activities outside of business hours are also visible and can be shared. Therefore, the boundaries between work and private life have become increasingly blurred. Employees should keep in mind how their posts, comments, likes or tweets could affect the relationship they share with their co-workers and potentially negatively impact their employer’s reputation.

Just because an employee is at home when the conduct occurs doesn’t mean action cannot be taken. Claims of bullying and harassment via social media are on the rise and it’s not an issue the FWC takes lightly. In some situations, a person’s employment may be in jeopardy where there is a sufficient connection between alleged misconduct over social media and their employment.

In a recent case heard by the FWC[1], it was found that the decision to sack a worker for making disparaging comments about his supervisor on

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Restraint of Trade: How far is too far?

Employers commonly use restraint of trade clauses in employment contracts to prevent their employees from jumping ship and working for a competitor when their employment ends. In doing so, employers are seeking to protect their business as well as their confidential information, trade secrets and customer, staff and supplier connections. Seems reasonable doesn’t it?

While confidentiality and non-solicitation clauses are generally found to be reasonable and enforceable,the challenge for employers is to ensure their restraint of trade clauses are not struck out for going beyond what is necessary to protect their legitimate business interests.

In a recent case before the Victorian Supreme Court[1], Just Group Ltd (JGL), a retailer company which includes Just Jeans, Peter Alexander and Portman’s, alleged their CFO, who was employed with them for just 6 months, breached her restraint of trade and confidentiality clauses when she accepted a job offer from rival Cotton On. Justice McDonald concluded that the restraints were too broad and went beyond what was reasonable to protect the company’s legitimate

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When swearing amounts to verbal abuse

Employees should choose their words carefully; whilst ‘colourful’ language may be tolerated at times, profane and insulting language towards another employee usually isn’t.

In two recent cases, the FWC has shed light on when an employer may be justified in sacking an employee for verbally abusing co-workers. However, employers are cautioned to consider all the factors surrounding the employee’s conduct when deciding whether instant dismissal is warranted.

In the first case[1], the dismissal of a sales consultant at a car dealership was upheld after he verbally abused the dealership’s stock controller over the phone. The employee and his wife (also an employee) were on a rostered day off when his wife received a call from the stock controller informing her about an inquiry from a contractor.

Despite the fact that the inquiry was quickly resolved, the employee called back shortly afterwards and began to abuse the stock controller using words such as “don’t f***ing call us ever” and “we are busy”. She tried to explain to the employee

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A tougher FWO to protect Australia’s vulnerable workers

The Turnbull Government is following through with its election promise to deliver greater protection to Australia’s vulnerable workers by strengthening the powers of the Fair Work Ombudsman.

In early 2017, new laws will be introduced that will enhance the FWO’s examination powers and expressly prohibit employers from providing false and misleading information to Fair Work Inspectors. The Government also plans to increase the penalties (up to ten times the current maximum) that apply to employers who underpay workers or who fail to keep sufficient employment records.  The intention is to deter businesses from engaging in practises that exploit vulnerable workers and to equal the playing field for compliant businesses doing the right thing.

In addition, a migrant workers taskforce has been established to improve employee protections for overseas workers. One of the key functions of the taskforce is to monitor 7-Eleven’s progress in rectifying their breaches which included the significant underpayment of wages, the manipulation of the payroll system and the doctoring of false employment records. The taskforce, chaired by

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A very flawed approach to the Dismissal Process

It’s a recurring issue that many employers seem to struggle with: getting the dismissal process right. It appears simple enough- if an employer has a valid reason for a dismissal and the process is handled with procedural fairness, then there should be no reason for an unfair dismissal claim. But why do so many employers get it wrong?

In a recent FWC[1] case it was held that an employee was unfairly dismissed despite his behavioural, performance and conduct issues which included the downloading and storing of pornographic material on his company phone and laptop. Unfortunately, the disciplinary process and the employee’s dismissal were riddled with errors which resulted in a termination that was found to be harsh, unjust and unreasonable.

Smarter Insurance Brokers, a small business, had mistakenly relied upon a clause in the employee’s contract that it believed meant payment in lieu of notice would relieve it of the obligation to provide a substantive reason for dismissal. Consequently the employer dismissed the employee and paid out the notice period

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The importance of drafting clear Employment Contracts

A recent case heard by the FWC[1] highlights the problems that follow when employment contracts are poorly drafted. Next Residential Pty Ltd, a building company in Perth, attempted to trade off award provisions by paying a higher annualised salary but got itself into legal trouble when it failed to identify the applicable award or specific provisions it ousted.

A former employee claimed that her employer owed her $29,000 for overtime and lunch breaks worked as directed. However, her employer insisted that she had no entitlement to this as she was paid an annualised salary in accordance with her employment contract. Furthermore, her employer denied that it directed the employee to work overtime or through her lunchbreak and maintained that any additional hours worked by the employee were set off against early finishes, late starts and half days worked.

The employee’s contract stated that her salary was "inclusive of any award provisions/entitlement that may be payable under an award". The FWC found that the contract failed to identify the applicable

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Effective drug and alcohol polices cover drug testing best practice

An employee who turns up to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol creates a risk to themselves and to others that can range from minor to life-threatening.  Not only do they put themselves and their co-workers in danger, but the business itself can suffer damage to its reputation.

Employers have an obligation to maintain the health, safety and welfare of all employees. They also want to ensure their employees uphold the integrity expected of them. Implementing a drug and alcohol policy can go a long way to eliminating the hazards that drug and alcohol use have on the workplace, and best practice is that these policies should also include guidelines as to how and when drug and alcohol testing will be conducted.

In a recent case heard by the FWC[1], a Dorevitch Pathology employee was asked to undergo a drug test during a meeting, after she was accused of using heroin by an ‘anonymous source’ (later identified as her disgruntled neighbour). The employee questioned the request,

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Returning to work after parental leave

In a recent case heard before the Federal Circuit Court[1], Roy Morgan Research was fined $52,000 for denying an employee’s request for flexible hours following her return from maternity leave, and then failing to return the employee to her pre-parental leave position.

While the company had undergone a massive restructure (which led to large scale redundancies), Roy Morgan had created an expectation that the employee would be redeployed to the Research Centre. Instead, she was sacked on account of redundancy. To make matters worse, the court found that the person covering her maternity leave was transferred into the position that would have been suitable for her. Importantly, the court took into account the fact that the employee was still on maternity leave with a young baby and now unemployed.

There is no doubt that balancing work and family life is tough enough as it is. Parents transitioning back into the workplace should be reassured knowing that, under the ‘return to work guarantee’, they have the right to come

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Showing your Employees Compassion and Support

The news of a family member passing away or sustaining a critical injury or illness is incredibly saddening and employers understand that their workers need to be with their loved ones during these difficult times. However employers also have a business to run so how do they strike a balance?

Under the NES, all employees (including casuals) are entitled to 2 days compassionate leave for each occasion when an immediate family or household member dies or suffers a life threatening illness or injury. This period can be taken as a single two day period, two separate one day periods or any separate periods that the employee and employer agree. Permanent employees are entitled to paid compassionate leave and casuals are entitled to unpaid compassionate leave. Employees are to give notice of the taking of leave and must provide evidence to substantiate the leave if requested by their employer.

In a recent case heard by the FWC[1], a sales manager’s request for compassionate leave to attend her grandfather’s memorial

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Calculating Redundancy Pay: Do previous casual hours count?

A full bench of the FWC has handed down a landmark decision which has changed the previously accepted interpretation of ‘service’ under the FWA and, in effect, turned upside-down the way in which redundancy payments are usually calculated.

Following the decision in AMWU v Donau[1], a permanent employee’s initial period of regular and systematic casual employment with the same employer will now count towards their period of continuous service used to calculate redundancy pay. Whilst many employees will be rejoicing with this news, the decision holds considerable and far-reaching ramifications for employers who will have to pay the price.

The case involved Donau, a Newcastle engineering and ship-building company, who commenced a large scale redundancy process. Initially, the company did not include prior continuous service by casuals in their redundancy pay calculations. The AMWU argued that this was in breach of their enterprise agreement, which specified that redundancy pay is to be calculated according to periods of continuous employment. The dispute then turned its discussion towards the definition of

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Termination for serious misconduct

An employer is permitted to instantly dismiss an employee when their actions amount to serious and willful misconduct. Serious misconduct can severely damage the employment relationship and indicate that the employee no longer wishes to be bound by the employment contract. Typically, this kind of conduct includes theft, fraud, assault, intoxication at work and actions that put other employees and the business itself at risk.

However, the tricky part for employers is knowing when an employee’s actions constitute serious misconduct, and when they don’t. Employers will need to assess the seriousness of the conduct in the circumstances and determine whether the punishment fits the crime. Employers also need to ensure that in all situations they follow a reasonable disciplinary process. Otherwise, employers run the risk that any dismissal will be harsh, unjust and unreasonable.  

The importance of procedural fairness has been a hot topic as of late and even when facing misconduct, employers are urged to follow a fair and reasonable dismissal process. In a recent FWC[1] case,

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Valid Reason + Procedural Fairness = Termination done right

Far too often we hear of cases where an employer has every reason for letting someone go but they didn’t get the process quite right and now they are defending unfair dismissal claims. Even if there is a valid reason for the dismissal, it will all be for nothing if the process is handled poorly.

In a recent FWC[1] decision, a longstanding BMW employee received $25,000 after it was found he was denied procedural fairness when sacked for serious misconduct. The employee was dismissed for breaching the company’s internet usage policy when he was caught accessing pornographic and lifestyle websites whilst at work, not once but twice. The financial controller was issued with his first and final warning when his colleague exposed that he was viewing pornographic websites. Following further investigation, the IT department found that he had once again breached the internet usage policy after ‘fashion and lifestyle’ swimsuit websites had popped up in his web history.

Two weeks later, the employee was called into a surprise meeting

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