Employee wins five-figure sum after complaining about colleagues' drug use

Fired for 'incompatibility'? Employer mistakenly believed worker, a painter, was under a 90-day trial period

Employee wins five-figure sum after complaining about colleagues' drug use

The Employment Relations Authority has awarded almost $20,000 to a painter who was fired just a few days into the job. The worker was fired when his employer mistakenly believed he was under a 90-day trial period. The case provides an important reminder for employers to have a clear understanding of their employment agreement and avoid making hasty dismissal decisions.

The case concerned a painter who was hired to complete a 14-week project in Blenheim. In February 2020, the worker drove with his co-workers from Christchurch to the project site. He grew concerned when his co-workers bought and consumed alcohol and cannabis during the journey and upon arrival at the motel.

That weekend, the worker relayed allegations that his co-workers were consuming alcohol and cannabis in the work vehicle and motel to his employer. The employer told the worker his concerns would be investigated. At the hearing, the employer stated he faced a dilemma in that, in dismissing all of the workers involved, he would be left with no team to complete the project. To resolve the situation, the employer, who mistakenly believed the worker’s employment agreement provided for a 90-day trial period, dismissed the worker – citing his “incompatibility with co-workers” as the reason. 

The hearing

The worker applied to the Employment Relations Authority, submitting that he was unjustifiably dismissed. The Authority noted several deficiencies in the employer’s conduct, including his failure to follow the worker’s employment agreement disciplinary procedures and his ignorance of the company’s drug and alcohol policy.

“[The employer] ostensibly failed to treat all involved in the same manner and apply disciplinary sanctions in an even handed or proportionate manner,” the Authority said. With this, the Authority deemed the worker unjustifiably dismissed. It ordered that the company pay the worker $12,000 in compensation and $5,000 in lost wages.

Key takeaways

  • Employers should ensure they have a clear understanding of the terms of their employment agreements
  • Employers should ensure they document and communicate the results of a disciplinary investigation before dismissing an employee
  • Disciplinary action should be enforced uniformly across all employees in an organisation

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