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Can you lose your job for lying?

Integrity is an important virtue. It is the quality of being honest and having strong moral values. In the context of employment, it plays a crucial role. The recruiting company Michael Page says that having a high degree of integrity means three things; that you are trustworthy and reliable; you communicate honestly and openly and, take responsibility for your actions.

A recent decision by Deputy President Geoffrey Bull of Fair Work Commission puts a spotlight on employee integrity in Warr v Qantas [2019] FWC 2182.

The Civil Aviation Regulations prohibit any person acting as a member of the operating crew of an aircraft to consume any alcoholic liquor eight hours immediately preceding the departure of the plane or to be under the influence of alcohol while on duty. However, an employee of Qantas was found guilty of consuming liquor taken from the onboard store and then lying about it after being caught with alcohol in her system.

In her submission, the employee with a 31 years’ service said that that working at Qantas was ‘her life’ and that she ‘would have been prepared to undertake any program to keep her job or accept any other punishment from Qantas other than dismissal.’ Although the employee had a long and clean service record with the airline, the Fair Work Commission found that the dismissal was fair

The facts of the case were that on 25 July 2018, Mrs Alison Warr commenced duty at 09:40 am at Sydney International Airport to work as a Business and First Class Flight Attendant on flight QF63 Sydney to Johannesburg. On arrival in Johannesburg, Mrs Warr was told that she would be required to undertake an alcohol breath test following concerns raised during the flight by another employee. The blood alcohol test took place at the crew hotel, and she returned a positive result. Alison acknowledged that she had consumed alcohol on the Sydney – Johannesburg flight by drinking vodka she had purchased from a duty-free shop at Sydney International Airport before her flight departure. She further stated that the ‘remainder of the bottle was tipped in the drain and the bottle discarded in the rubbish bin’.

The airline’s investigations found the said duty-free shop did not sell any brand of vodka at or around the time of the flight’s departure. On 10 October 2018, the flight attendant was invited to provide a written response as to why her employment should not be terminated.

Mrs Warr sent a written response on 16 October 2018 wherein she conceded that she had been dishonest during the investigation and that she had not purchased the alcohol at a dutyfree store and had, as alleged, taken and consumed company alcohol on board flight QF63. A further meeting was held on 23 October 2018, and Mrs Warr was dismissed two days later with five weeks’ pay in place of notice.

It is worth noting that Deputy President Bull contemplated a few concepts such as valid reason, failure to comply with employer policies and the meaning of harsh, unjust and unreasonable decisions; while considering the appeal. He referred to the term ‘valid reason’ as it was decided by Northrop J in Selvachandran v Petron Plastics, that a valid reason means it must be sound, defensible or well-founded and should not be ‘capricious, fanciful, spiteful or prejudiced’.

Concerning Mrs Warr’s duty to follow employer policies, he followed the Full Bench in B, C and D v Australia Post where they made the following observation in respect of a failure to comply with employer policies:

‘A failure to comply with a lawful and reasonable policy is a breach of the fundamental term of the contract of employment that obliges employees to comply with the lawful and reasonable directions of the employer. In this way, a substantial and wilful breach of policy will often, if not usually, constitute a “valid reason” for dismissal.’

As Mrs Warr had pleaded that the dismissal was disproportionate to the misconduct. In his decision, Deputy President Bull quoted McHugh and Gummow JJ in Byrne v Australian Airlines Ltd as following

“[o]ne termination of employment may be unjust because the employee was not guilty of the misconduct on which the employer acted, may be unreasonable because it was decided upon inferences which could not reasonably have been drawn from the material before the employer, and may be harsh in its consequences for the personal and economic situation of the employee or because it is disproportionate to the gravity of the misconduct in respect of which the employer acted.”

Deputy President Bull said that his decision might have been different if she had been “upfront and honest when it was first alleged she had consumed alcohol from company stores while on duty.”

Have you read your employment contract? Do you know the company policies? You may be in a job where you have to entertain clients and allowed to consume liquor or one where you are expected to have no alcohol. Like the above case, a role in the hospitality industry provides easy access to alcohol. The temptation to consume is high; especially if one has poor impulse control or going through personal issues. There are two lessons to take from this case; follow company policies and always be honest with the employer. As McPherson JA famously said, ‘Basic honesty is not a quality that is ordinarily acquired through experience or by the lengthy practice of one’s best, to be honest’ in QLS v Bax [1998] QCA 089.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is not legal advice. It is not intended to be comprehensive nor does it constitute legal advice. We attempt to ensure that the Content is current, but we do not guarantee its currency. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the Content.

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