I suspect that the proposals to reform personal grievance law will help fill out this blog over the next few weeks. One of the most common criticisms of the personal grievance process is that it favours form over substance and that totally undeserving employees gain large payouts when clearly guilty of serious misconduct or even criminal conduct. One such example is the employee who was held to be unjustifiably dismissed for theft because the employer never told him that theft was misconduct. John Hughes wrote an illuminating article on this mythical case over a decade ago (The Grievant Who Never Was  ELB 136). Apart from showing the mythical employee left no forensic record, Hughes gives examples that suggest, if anything, that the courts tended to lean in the opposite direction when theft or unauthorised taking of property is suspected. As Hughes points out the courts have upheld dismissals or reduced remedies to nil even where there have been serious procedural failings. Generally all that is asked of employers is that there is a proper factual foundation for their action. Hughes also makes the point that "demonstrably inaccurate political statements" and a misunderstanding of case law are a poor basis for legal reform.
Fast forward to early January this year and the sensationalist headline that appeared in a number of news headlines: "Worker fired for supplying drugs gets payout". A spokesperson for the employer concerned was apparently quoted saying that "employers are being shafted" and "its so unbalanced its not funny." The most issue of NZLawyer has an interesting article on this case "Don't believe everything you hear.." written by Aaron Lloyd and Bridget Smith of Minter Ellison (not previously suspected of being a hive of left-wing activism) who clearly went to the trouble of reading the case before commenting. What their analysis shows is clear procedural failures and a failure to properly define why the employee was being dismissed. Briefly, the employee had admitted supplying marijuana to a co-employer at some stage in the past and the employer then suspended and later dismissed him. The authors sum up the problem as follows: "the company failed to properly establish exactly what is was that Wilkinson had done. In particular it was not clear whether there was a recent alleged sale, when any previous exchange of drugs had occurred, or where any alleged sale or exchange may have taken place. In particular the company took no steps to ascertain if the activity...was inside or outside work hours, or whether or not it was on company premises." It seemed all that was established was that sometime in the past the employee had given a colleague drugs outside of work. There was no proper investigation, no opportunity to respond and no proper connection established between the non-work conduct and the work. As the authors note the fact that (non-work) actions amount to a criminal offence does not by itself justify dismissal.
This was a clear example not of employers being shafted but of an employer failing to follow even the most basic procedural steps - in spite apparently of having the benefit of HR advice.
In my next post I will provide an idiots' guide to procedure. For the moment I will close with a statement on its importance:
Megarry J explained this in John v Rees  2 All ER 274 at 402:
"It may be that there are some who would decry the importance which the Courts attach to the observance of the rules of natural justice. ‘When something is obvious,’ they may say, ‘why force everybody to go through the tiresome waste of time involved in framing charges and giving an opportunity to be heard? The result is obvious from the start.’ Those who take this view do not, I think, do themselves justice. As everybody who has had anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; of unanswerable charges which in the event, were completely answered; of inexplicable conduct which was fully explained; of fixed and unalterable determinations that, by discussion, suffered a change. Nor are those with any knowledge of human nature who pause to think for a moment likely to underestimate the feelings of resentment of those who find that a decision against them has been made without their being afforded any opportunity to influence the course of events."