Where's your loyalty? Assistant fired for communicating with ex-manager

ERA looks at claim of unjustifiable dismissal

Where's your loyalty? Assistant fired for communicating with ex-manager

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) recently dealt with a case involving a worker who was dismissed for serious misconduct after sending emails to her former manager, who was on sick leave.

The case raised questions about employee loyalty, confidentiality, and the bounds of appropriate workplace communication.

In a nutshell, the worker claimed she was unjustifiably dismissed and disadvantaged by suspension, while the employer argued her actions warranted termination.

The decision delved into the complexities of workplace relationships and the expectations placed on employees to act in their employer's best interests.

Workplace communication gone awry

The worker began her employment as an assistant to the general manager of a company in 2018. Her role included a wide variety of office and administrative tasks, as well as providing support to the general manager.

In 2022, the general manager went on sick leave, leaving the worker feeling "out of the loop". A temporary general manager was appointed, and the worker was informed that she should report to this acting general manager.

However, the worker continued to send emails to the original general manager, disclosing confidential company information and encouraging legal action against the employer.

These emails contained sensitive information about internal management discussions and explicitly urged the general manager to use this information to gain leverage against the employer.

For instance, one email stated: "Hey you should reply to those lawyers and say they are acting as individuals NOT on behalf of [the employer] because the Chairman of the Committee of Management has not given them authority to act on behalf of [the employer]."

Suspension and disciplinary process

Upon discovering these emails, the employer viewed them as a serious breach of the worker's duties.

They believed she was actively working against the company's interests and undermining its processes. The employer initially suspended the worker and later invited her to a disciplinary meeting.

The suspension letter, dated 18 August but handed to the worker on 19 August, proposed a meeting to discuss suspension later that same day.

The worker, feeling shocked, immediately collected her personal belongings and a copy of her life insurance policy before leaving the office.

At the disciplinary meeting on 22 September, the worker was accompanied by her cousin, who was introduced as her lawyer.

The employer's representatives attempted to discuss the content of the emails with the worker, but she maintained that she reported to the general manager and had not received written directions not to communicate with her.

The employer's decision

After considering the worker's responses, the employer decided to dismiss her. They felt they could no longer trust her, given her apparent willingness to work against the company's interests.

The dismissal was verbally communicated during the meeting and later confirmed in writing on 28 September.

The employer's representative explained:

"Faced with the responses [the worker] did provide, as well as the content of her emails, [the employer] considered that [the worker] was working against [the former’s] interests, and that she knew and understood that she could face employment consequences as a result. In those circumstances, [the employer] could no longer have trust and confidence in her, and summary dismissal was the only appropriate option."

The ERA’s analysis and decision

The ERA examined the process followed by the employer and the worker's responses throughout the disciplinary process. They concluded that the employer had followed a fair process and made their concerns clear.

The Authority noted: "Standing back and looking at the situation overall, [the employer] was justified in its decision to dismiss [the worker]. It followed a fair process and made its concerns clear. [The worker's] contemporaneous actions demonstrate that she was aware of the seriousness of the allegations against her."

The Authority also addressed the worker's claim of unjustified disadvantage due to suspension.

They found that the suspension was contractually allowed and reasonably implemented, stating: "The act of suspending [the worker], on pay and in the face of sufficiently serious misconduct allegations, was an action that was contractually available to [the employer]."

In conclusion, the Authority dismissed both the worker's claims of unjustified dismissal and unjustified disadvantage. It said:

"Given [the worker's] stance that she was entitled to act as she did, and her failure to explain her actions other than by emphasising her loyalty to the general manager rather than [the employer] as her employer, the decision to dismiss her was a decision that a fair and reasonable employer could have made in all the circumstances at the time."

This case serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining professional boundaries and loyalties in the workplace, even during periods of organisational change or uncertainty.

It also highlights the need for clear communication of reporting lines and expectations, especially during transitions in management.

Recent articles & video

Employee wins interim reinstatement after Kmart dismissal

Court criticises University of Auckland's poor response to support harassed professor

New Zealand to establish new advisory group to address retail crimes

SHRM removes ‘equity’ from DEI program ‘to address flaws’

Most Read Articles

Domino's Pizza franchise owner given home detention for exploiting staff

Harassed university professor wins employment case

What 30 years of pay data tells us about NZ today