Have I been given proper warning at work?


Imagine a workplace where the manager’s preferred method of motivation is the threat of termination.  “Finish this report by today or you’re fired”.  “Attend this meeting or you’re fired”.  “Empty out your dustbin before you go or you’re fired”.  Every request, big or small, for a matter of months, is do it or be fired.  It’s like background noise. 

Until you show up one morning with an unemptied dustbin and they fire you.  You might be afforded a bit of confusion.  On one hand, you’ve most certainly been informed about this possibility before.  On the other, why today?  How were you possibly meant to interpret that THIS threat was the serious one?

The workplace described above is (hopefully) pure fiction, but it illustrates a point.  Have you ever been reprimanded for doing something you’ve been apparently warned about, but don’t recall the warning?  Have you ever been given your Strike Two or Three without knowing what Strike One was for?  It’s a common occurrence in many workplaces.  Differences in management, communication and listening styles mean that sometimes there is a failure to communicate where discipline is concerned.

In Knight v Fawcett Plumbing, the Fair Work Commission found that, generally, warnings will be considered against whatever the ‘norm’ is at the workplace.  Ms. Lisa Knight was an office manager at Fawcett plumbing who had her employment terminated supposedly on the grounds of her anxiety.  Her employer Mr Mark Fawcett later gave evidence that she had been warned multiple times previously for lateness, smoking and other performance issues.

Ms. Knight, meanwhile, gave evidence that she had never, to her knowledge, received counselling or been subject to disciplinary action.  Her employer Mr Fawcett had talked to her before about these issues, but only informally.  Commissioner Platt found that this was a valid position for Ms. Knight to take, primarily due to the ‘robust nature’ of communications in the Fawcett Plumbing office.  In an amusingly polite understatement, the commissioner stated:

 ‘… that the working environment at Fawcett Plumbing was disorganised and the communications were of a robust nature, with four letter words featuring in verbal and electronic communications.’[1]

Additionally, the threat of dismissal was frequently used as a motivational tool by both Ms. Knight and Mr Fawcett and this may have ‘have reduced Miss Knight’s perception that Mr Fawcett had genuine concerns about her conduct and/or performance.’

In other words, it’s prudent to put warnings formally – in writing, where possible.  There are lessons in here for both employers and employees.  In workplaces that are fast-paced, or rowdy, or where swearing is commonplace, there’s a real chance that more soft-spoken complaints might get lost in the ambient noise of workplace communication.

Employers and employees are both better off when the requirements, performance indicators and feedback mechanisms of a role are clearly expressed.  An employer who provides clear warnings or performance concerns affords the employee the best possible chance to adjust and fix their performance, in the same way that the first step towards fixing a car is figuring out exactly what’s causing the engine to rattle.

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