Fonterra to pay almost $40,000 for 'unjustifiable' dismissal of veteran employee

ERA finds no solid basis for dismissal of employee after workplace absence

Fonterra to pay almost $40,000 for 'unjustifiable' dismissal of veteran employee

The Wellington Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has found Fonterra-NZ guilty of the illegal dismissal of Steve Waite, who served as production supervisor for the company for 27 years.

The ERA was ordered to pay the dismissed employee almost $40,000 for damages.

Based on court documents, Waite called in sick on January 31, 2022, but his manager, Christina Beck sent a text message to three absent employees, insinuating that these were planned absences to disrupt production.  The text said:

“I am concerned that you were unable to attend your rostered shift today.  We have experienced a high degree of unplanned absence from your shift group today.  This does give us cause for concern in light of some information the company has, suggesting that this may have been pre-planned.  Should you attend work tomorrow as scheduled then I am prepared to take your absence today at face value.  I am interested to know more about what has impacted your ability to attend work today and will discuss this with you on your return to work tomorrow as is our normal practice.”

This text message made Waite, who, during that time was suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, upset, according to court documents. He texted back and said that he would bring a medical certificate when he came back to work. Still sick, Waite was not able to report for work on February 1, 2022, only to return on February 8 since he has rostered days off and there had been a public holiday.

In the end, the company decided to pay the absent employees without requiring them to submit a medical certificate.

However, Waite was still upset about the text message, particularly, on how it was composed, and asked Beck about it. The conversation turned into an argument, and Beck reported Waite for his ‘threatening and intimidating behaviour.’

Dismissal after argument over workplace absence

Beck talked to a fellow manager manager about the altercation, which escalated to a more senior manager. Management decided to suspend Waite as the investigation was carried out. After the investigation, the company decided to dismiss Waite on May 6, 2022.

As the basis for his dismissal, the company said, Waite “had no demonstration of accountability” and “showed a lack of awareness or insight into his conduct.” The company also argued that it “had no assurance there would not be a repeat incident, which they consider a “health and safety risk that would present at other plants or work sites”.

The court contradicted the company’s argument that Waite was no longer safe to work with and could not be redeployed in other sites because of what happened, saying that it had no solid basis since the incident happened only once, and there was no record of repeated behaviour on the part of the dismissed employee.

I accept Fonterra did not deliberately pre-determine the appropriate outcome at the start of the investigative or disciplinary process, but the lack of an open mind is evident from the failure to fully consider alternatives to summary dismissal that objectively should have been considered.  I conclude in all the circumstances, Fonterra did not act as a fair and reasonable employer could, and Mr. Waite was unjustifiably dismissed,” a portion of the decision written by Natasha Szeto read.

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