Is it an employee’s responsibility to know their employer’s policies?

Is it an employee’s responsibility to know their employer’s policies?

Workplace policies are an essential component of communicating the values of an organisation and setting out expectations and standards for employee conduct and performance. Generally, organisations have multiple policies and procedures which commonly regulate workplace matters such as: 

  • occupational health and safety
  • drug and alcohol use
  • anti-discrimination and harassment
  • grievance handling
  • social media and mobile phone use
  • use of company property
  • employee performance management, and
  • discipline and termination. 

Responsibility of employers to ensure employees have access to and understand the organisation’s policies

Employers have a responsibility to ensure that all employees have either received a hard copy of the organisation’s policies or have been advised on how to access them electronically. Recent unfair dismissal cases before the Fair Work Commission demonstrate that dismissing an employee for a breach of workplace policies is most likely to be upheld where an employee has knowledge of the relevant policy and has received appropriate and regular training from the employer. 

For example, the decision of Lawrence v Calvary Home Care Services Ltd [2016] FSC 175 involved an employee dismissed for breaching the organisation’s policy of accepting private work from Calvary clients. The Fair Work Commission found the dismissal of the employee to be well-reasoned and lawful. The Commission emphasised that the employer had stressed the importance of the policy to the employee, along with making it clear to the employee that any breach would likely result in dismissal. Despite this, the employee knowingly breached the policy.

Responsibility of employees to be aware and understand their employer’s policies

It is important that employees read through their organisation’s policies to develop an understanding of each policy and the potential consequences of non-compliance. However, it is not the sole responsibility of the employee to have a comprehensive knowledge of the employer’s policies. This was demonstrated in the decision of Atfield v Jupiters Ltd (2002) 123 IR 273, where an employee was successful in an unfair dismissal claim following termination for breach of company policy. In reaching this decision, Commissioner Hodder found it was unrealistic to expect an employee to fully understand and digest an entire policy handbook during a brief induction process, and that there was a very real possibility the employee had not understood the implications of breaching one of the policies. The employer had also failed to put a training program in place to ensure that employees fully understood the workplace policies. 

Conclusion

Organisations simply having a workplace policy does not automatically protect them from having an unfair dismissal claim brought by an employee. Employees cannot be expected to comply with policies if employers fail to provide them with access to the organisation’s policies, fail to provide initial training regarding those policies and fail to schedule regular refresher training sessions to keep employees up to date. The decisions highlighted above demonstrate the requirement for employers to have clear policies in place that outline the expected behaviour of employees, and the potential consequences of non-compliance. They also demonstrate the expectation that employers will ensure employees fully understand the terms of the policies, and that employers have clear evidence that training has been provided to employees. 

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