Hands off the phone

Virtually everyone who owns a mobile phone would agree that at one point or another they have used it when they shouldn’t or for too long. Not only are people preoccupied by their phones when they are walking down the street or crossing the road, but they are also distracted at work through the constant updates, emails and message alerts.

On the one hand, mobile phone use in the workplace has its benefits. For instance it enables employees to work remotely and allows employers to get in contact with their workers out-of-hours. In saying that, the detriments of excessive mobile phone use can often outweigh the benefits. It can perpetuate employee productivity concerns, cause disharmony in maintaining a work-life-balance and lead to various workplace safety hazards, especially when employees are using their phones whilst operating dangerous machinery. Prohibiting mobile phone use altogether is likely to be hard to enforce and generally a reasonable level of personal use is acceptable. The question becomes: how can employers manage mobile phone use in the workplace to a reasonable level?

In a recent case before the FWC,[1] a production packaging operator on night shift was dismissed for using his mobile phone twice whilst operating the company forklift. Given the safety concerns in the workplace, this conduct was strictly prohibited under the company policy.  

During the first incident, the employer saw the mobile phone fall onto the employee’s seat. The employee claimed that the device had innocently fallen out of his pocket. The employee received a verbal warning from his employer who made it abundantly clear that “forklifts and mobile phones could not co-exist”. He was told he was not to use his phone whilst on the forklift in the future and the employee agreed. 

The second incident occurred later during the shift when the employee was on the forklift, but he claimed that it was not switched on or moving. His says his phone vibrated, and he picked it up to see if one of his family members was trying to contact him. He claimed that his employer stated, “you’re on the phone again” and he apologised while jumping off the forklift and putting the phone in his bag. The employee claimed that the screen lit up but denied that he unlocked the phone or read anything showing on the screen. His employer said that he saw the employee fiddling with, and appeared to be texting, on his mobile phone. The employer also stated that he could hear the forklift was running albeit stationary.

The FWC accepted the employer’s version of events and found that there as a valid reason for the employee’s dismissal. It was agreed that the employee ignored a reasonable direction from his employer not to use his phone whilst on the forklift, despite a warning merely 2 hours before. Regard was also had to how the employee was on a final warning (for failing to comply with the requirement to apply for leave in advance).

Lessons for Employers

  • Do you have a mobile phone policy? The policy can include stipulations regarding acceptable personal use, such as:
    • Phones can only be used during breaks or where there is a family emergency
    • Phones must be kept on silent throughout the day.
    • Brief personal calls must be taken in a quite blocked off area, e.g. an office, boardroom or outside.
  • Where employees are using company phones, provisions may be incorporated under the I.T policy.
  • It may be useful to provide training for employees on the adverse effects that excessive use can have on the workplace, e.g. performance related issues and safety concerns.
  • Depending on what is stipulated in your policy, remain vigilant on mobile phone use at work. If over excessive use is evident, consider whether disciplinary action is necessary.
  • It is important for employers to lead by example. If your workers are always witnessing their employer/managers on their phone, it is likely they will follow suit.



[1] Jason Hansen v Ceres Natural Foods Pty Ltd T/A Pure Harvest [2018] FWC 1052 (19 February 2018).

Previous Post
Calculating Earnings for the unfair dismissal high income threshold
Next Post
Procedural Fairness: Providing employees with an opportunity to respond to the reasons for dismissal