The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has recently upheld the termination of a Qantas employee who was found to have booked discount airfares in breach of Qantas policy for friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues. The termination process was truncated because the employee had accepted a redundancy package and would have received a significant severance payment had she remained in employment for a further period of four days. In the circumstances, the FWC held that the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

Background

The applicant, Maria Panera, commenced work at Qantas in 1986 when she was 25 years old. In April 2014, Ms Panera expressed interest in a voluntary redundancy. Qantas accepted, and provided Ms Panera with written notice that her employment would cease on 10 June 2014, at which time she would be paid a significant severance payment and accrued entitlements.

Ms Panera was employed in the position of a Customer Service Agent Ticketing and Sales at the Sydney International Airport. Her role largely involved ‘day of travel’ bookings.

Shortly before her employment was due to cease, Qantas conducted an investigation which revealed at least nine instances of Ms Panera booking discounted airfares for friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues by:

  • Overriding the reservation system in order to book discount fare classes which were not available on the relevant flights;
  • Backdating fare quotes in order to access early bird pricing which was not otherwise available;
  • Failing to enter ages of travellers in order charge adult passengers the cost of a child ticket;
  • Allowing stopovers at no extra charge contrary to the fare rules; and
  • Failing to charge cancellation and change fees which were otherwise payable.

Qantas terminated Ms Panera’s employment with effect from 6 June 2014, thereby avoiding the obligation to pay a severance payment on 10 June 2014.

Qantas’ case

Qantas argued that dismissal was justified and characterised Ms Panera’s actions as ‘misconduct relating to provision of discounted tickets and a failure to charge for booking changes that did not appropriately arise in the course of Ms Panera’s duties or for any authorised operational reason’.

The applicant’s case

Ms Panera argued that her dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable in circumstances where:

  • She had never seen a position description for her role;
  • She had been trained in a different era than later Customer Service Officers and Supervisors, who had received training at TAFE;
  • The policy in relation to discounting tickets was never properly articulated to employees and Ms Panera had never been given a direction by Qantas that the ticketing techniques and procedures she had used were not permitted;
  • The ticketing techniques and procedures she used were long-standing and commonly used;
  • Qantas had failed to monitor compliance with its policies and manage its risk; and
  • She had not been given an adequate opportunity to respond.

The FWC’s findings

The FWC was satisfied that there was a valid reason for dismissal, having found that:

  • Ms Panera’s conduct involved deliberate breaches of policy and fare rules; and
  • Although Ms Panera did not make any personal financial gain from her conduct, she ensured that her friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues received a financial benefit while Qantas suffered a corresponding financial detriment.

In determining whether the dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable, the FWC acknowledged that Ms Panera had a long and unblemished employment history with Qantas, and further acknowledged that her termination had a particularly devastating effect in circumstances where she would have otherwise been entitled to a significant severance payment.

The FWC did have concerns with the procedure adopted by Qantas. Although Ms Panera had been given an adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations of misconduct, including having union representation and a support person, she was provided with only approximately 24 hours to consider Qantas’ findings of misconduct and address what outcome should arise. In the circumstances of a long term employee, with an unblemished record, who was otherwise entitled to a significant redundancy payment in a matter of days, the FWC considered greater time ought to have been afforded to address the question of appropriate penalty.

However, the FWC held that given the deliberate breaches of policy ‘no further opportunity to make submissions on merit or mitigation could, should or would have made any difference to the decision to terminate Ms Panera’s employment’. As such, the dismissal was upheld.

Lessons for employers

While the case was decided largely on its facts, the FWC made a number of findings of more general application, including:

  • While it is prudent for employers to conduct regular audits to ensure that employees are behaving honestly and appropriately, an employer should not be criticised if, in the absence of any indication to the contrary, it proceeds on the basis that its employees are acting honestly and in accordance with policies; and
  • Although the FWC recognised that the truncated termination procedure was motivated by a desire to avoid a severance payment, this did not in and of itself render the termination unfair.