It is not uncommon for employers to have a zero tolerance policy on any transmission of inappropriate material at work.  However, the key to having a positive work environment is always to ensure that all staff are kept up-to-date on policies and that employers make a serious effort in bringing to the attention of all staff what the policies are.  Unfortunately, uncomfortable situations do occur, which sometimes result in dismissals.

This week, You Legal’s Senior Consultant in Workplace Relations & Safety, Fiona Tillmann, updates you on recent developments in the law and explains how to protect yourself and your employees from becoming involved in litigation concerning unfair dismissals relating to the alleged distribution of pornographic material.

Case Example

In 2010, Australia Post installed a software system which captured pornographic material emailed by its employees. Following an internal investigation, employees who were in violation of the zero tolerance policy on distribution of such material in the workplace were terminated. Others were subject to disciplinary action, but were able to keep their jobs.

Three employees applied to the Fair Work Commission under unfair dismissal laws. The Commission agreed with the decision made by Australia Post and found the dismissals were not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.  However, the Commission also found, in consideration of the circumstances that one of the applicants deserved to be compensated.  The two applicants for whom the Commission did not provide a remedy, appealed further to the Full Bench.

On review of the appeal, the Full Bench Majority noted that the appeal was the result of a growing trend where “accessing, sending, or receiving and storing pornographic material by an employee was seen as serious misconduct that merited dismissal.”  They were also concerned that an earlier decision in Queensland Rail v Wake (2006) was not being interpreted correctly in light of the present cases.

Queensland Rail Decision

In this case Queensland Rail dismissed the employee due to their failure to comply with an electronic communication policy that also included the communication of inappropriate material.  However, the circumstances surrounding this case were not the same as those of the Australia Post case in that Queensland Rail took great effort to ensure that employees were fully aware of the zero tolerance policy.  Queensland Rail used various venues and training materials to inform them of this policy, they even went so far as to have the employees electronically acknowledge that they were aware of the policy and  also allowed a certain period of time for an employee to remove any  offending material from the electronic system.

Therefore, the Majority Bench wanted to make sure that the decision as to whether a dismissal is “harsh, unjust or unreasonable” should be based on the circumstances and facts of each case.  The message being that it is by no means a foregone conclusion that termination of employment based on distribution of inappropriate material will be automatically defendable.

What does this mean?

Whatever your policy position is on the transmission of pornographic / inappropriate material, we encourage you to make sure that you take every reasonable step to make your employees aware of what the policy is and what the potential consequences are for breach of the policy.  The Queensland Rail Decision demonstrates that it is good practice  to hold training seminars on changing policies of the company and to check back with your staff that they are aware of the policies.

What Should I Do Next?

Contact us if you would like more information on this topic or require guidance on drafting office behaviour policies.  Our lawyers are always available to answer any further questions you might have.  We look forward to hearing from you with any questions or feedback!

* This blog is for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to any specific issues.