Taking the piss: 'serious' misconduct in the Australian Public Service

Allegations of misbehaviour must be handled with great care, as a recent case shows. Serious misconduct in the workplace is no laughing matter. It takes effort, though, to suppress a chuckle when reading the recent Fair Work Commission case of Walia v Citywide Service Solutions. Notwithstanding its private sector context, Walia offers a reminder about the care needed when managing code of conduct allegations and provides a timely opportunity to revisit the Australian Public Service’s misconduct process.

The applicant in Walia was employed by Citywide as a garbage-truck driver, operating in the Melbourne CBD. In June 2016, Bobby Walia was midway through a 10-hour shift when a City of Melbourne inspector spotted him urinating in a laneway. The inspector issued Walia with an infringement notice for public urination.

Walia notified his employer of the incident, who were understandably concerned. Walia said he had urgently needed to urinate but found it difficult to park his garbage truck near a public toilet. Citywide determined that, as Walia’s actions were against the law and had the potential to cause reputational damage to Citywide, it would terminate his employment for serious misconduct. Walia promptly sought unfair-dismissal relief.

Commissioner Michelle Bissett began her consideration of the dispute by observing: “There have been many (perhaps too many) decisions of the commission where an employee has had his employment terminated for urinating other than in the toilet.” She held that, while Citywide had a valid justification – “[Walia] provided no cogent reason why he did not stop to go to the toilet before it became urgent” – the dismissal was nevertheless harsh. Termination was “disproportionate to the gravity of the misconduct”, especially given that Walia had immediately self-reported and shown contrition, and that termination would also have an inordinate adverse impact on him. Accordingly, Bissett ordered Walia’s reinstatement.

Had the applicant in Walia been a federal public servant, his misconduct would have been dealt with under the APS code of conduct and the relevant agency guidelines. I have dealt with the minutiae of code disciplinary investigation on many occasions before, and don’t propose to do so again here. The Public Service Commission’s 2015 Handling Misconduct: A Human Resource Manager’s Guide and the Australian Government Solicitor’s 2014 Misconduct in the Australian Public Service legal briefing are both good starting points.

The key takeaway point from Walia, though, is that conduct considered by the employer to constitute serious misconduct does not axiomatically justify termination. While the label “serious misconduct” is often used in the APS context, it must be noted that the term does not appear in the Public Service Act. Notwithstanding the concept’s origins in the common law – and it is well accepted that, absent a legislative framework, an employer can summarily dismiss an employee for a single act of “serious misconduct” where it is fundamentally inconsistent with the continuation of the employment contract – termination on such a basis could still fall foul of the unfair-dismissal protections.

Moreover, it should always be borne in mind that the APS misconduct regime is protective rather than punitive. Sanctioning public servants can only be done to protect the public, maintain proper standards of conduct within the APS and uphold the service’s reputation. Too often, this protective purpose is forgotten in a rush to punish misbehaviour. In the Walia case, the incident occurred in sight of an apartment block, giving rise to a reputational hazard. However, had Walia’s public servant equivalent urinated out of sight behind a corner, imposing anything more than a reprimand would be questionable.

There is, though, one notable exception that deserves consideration. Employees at the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force are all subject to a peculiar provision in their respective originating legislation. Where the agency head reasonably believes that the conduct of a terminated employee amounted to serious misconduct, and this conduct had or is likely to have a damaging effect on the agency’s reputation or staff morale, they can make a declaration. This declaration precludes the Fair Work Act from applying to the termination, such that the terminated employee can’t lodge an unfair dismissal claim or demand payment in lieu of notice.

While the specialised nature of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission or the AFP may justify this limitation, its introduction in the Australian Border Force Act means thousands of public servants are now at risk of losing their right to challenge a termination. The explanatory memorandum’s justification was hardly persuasive: … in instances of serious misconduct … the application of the Fair Work Act can impact on the ability of the secretary to both quickly and decisively remove an APS employee … For example, a review of the dismissal that results in the person having to be reinstated may send a mixed signal to the community or the workforce about the tolerance of serious misconduct within the department.

The latter proposition borders on the absurd: an employee would only be reinstated should the commission determine they had not committed the misconduct, or there were compelling mitigating circumstances that make the termination “harsh”. Suggesting this eventuality would be destructive of public confidence in the Border Force is tantamount to arguing that appeal rights in criminal cases should be removed because an overturned conviction undermines faith in the prosecutor’s office.

Thankfully, terminated Border Force staff who are subject to such a declaration can still challenge the misconduct finding (and, indeed, the declaration itself) via judicial review. Nevertheless, this development is deeply troubling, and unlikely to lessen red tape for affected employees – or the public service generally – in resolving nasty workplace disputes.

Managing misconduct is rarely easy, and often reasonable minds will differ on the appropriate response to misbehaviour in the workplace. To some, the decision in Walia might be “taking the piss” and offer yet another example of the Fair Work Commission’s employee-friendly nature; to others, Citywide’s initial handling of the incident would be considered grossly excessive and the ultimate outcome entirely just. For those managing misconduct in the APS, adopting a proportionate and procedurally fair approach should prevent headline-grabbing outcomes like that in Walia.

First published in the Canberra Times.

John Wilson is the managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers and an accredited specialist in industrial relations and employment law. He thanks Kieran Pender for his help in preparing this article.