Ensuring that co-workers maintain respectful and friendly relations is pivotal in any workplace. In saying that, it is inevitable that tensions between workers will flare up at one point or another. In these circumstances, employers must be able to turn to a code of conduct or policy to address the situation before it’s too late. Further, keeping a firm eye on how workplace culture is developing will be an employer’s greatest tool in preventing improper employee interaction becoming the norm.
In a recent case before the FWC, a Qantas baggage handling worker was dismissed following an investigation which revealed instances of serious misconduct directed at his co-worker, which was inconsistent with the Qantas Conduct policy.
The FWC considered numerous allegations of misconduct and found that many of the claims against the employee were substantiated. Instances which were more serious in nature included where the employee forcefully grabbed a colleague by his shirt and shoved him up against a locker because the co-worker failed to respond verbally to his greeting. The employee was frustrated when the co-worker instead replied with a “thumbs up”.
In a separate incident when the co-worker took sick leave, the employee said words to the effect of “its Un-Australian to not go [into work] sick” and if you’re not willing to go sick you should “fuck off back to your own country”. The FWC also considered another altercation which occurred in the lunch room, where the co-worker was fiddling with some coins on the table. The employee aggressively said, ‘stop spinning that fucking coin’, and then got up and pushed the table into his co-worker’s body.
The employee claimed that his actions were not sackable offences but rather a bit of "argy bargy" between friends. He claimed that his conduct was consistent with the workplace culture at Qantas, which involved strength tests such as squeezing hands and derogatory name calling. The employee submitted that he did not know his actions constituted misconduct and believed that a more fitting punishment would be to issue him with a warning given his unblemished record of 12 years at Qantas.
The FWC agreed with Qantas in finding that a fundamental breach of the Qantas Conduct policy occurred and there was a valid reason to dismiss the employee. It was clear that the employee did not like his co-worker and the FWC rejected his assertion that the two were “friends”. It was stated that the locker room, sick leave and spinning coin allegations were all serious and “not trivial matters to be brushed aside". The commission placed weight on the fact that the employee had participated in training on the conduct policy only 12 months prior to the incidents occurring.
Whilst his unblemished record was a relevant consideration, the FWC noted that this did not excuse his conduct or offer him a “free pass” to incidents of misconduct. His attitude indicated that he showed little remorse and he failed to understand that "his conduct, on a range of levels, was wrong and does not constitute acceptable behaviour in the workplace". In finding that the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable, the FWC was satisfied that Qantas had adopted the proper process and ensured all necessary efforts to afford procedural fairness.
Lessons for Employers
- Instances of serious misconduct should not be taken lightly and must be dealt with promptly, in accordance with the relevant policy and procedure.
- Consider your code of conduct and whether it sufficiently addresses how employees are expected to behave in the workplace.
- Provide training on policy content and ensure that polices are regularly communicated to employees so that they are aware of your expectations, including the consequences that follow for policy breaches.
- Remain vigilant on how workplace culture is developing and the interactions between employees, particularly where it is common knowledge that certain workers are not friends or do not get along.
Employers are urged to consider their code of conduct when applying disciplinary action against those who engage in unacceptable conduct towards co-workers. In a recent case, the FWC upheld the sacking of a Qantas worker for separate instances of misconduct, including shoving a co-worker up against a locker, telling him to f___ off back to his own country and pushing a table against his body because the co-worker was fiddling with coins on the table.
 Benjamin Gigney v Qantas Airways Limited T/A Qantas  FWC 1352 (19 March 2018).