Some months ago, I wrote an article comparing the process for Kevin Pietersen’s reintegration into the England cricket team with the use of workplace mediation in the more common situation where employees fall out or an employee needs to be ‘brought back into the fold’ after raising a grievance. As they say, sport is a metaphor for life (and life imitates art, but that’s a whole other blog post if you have seen Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst’s work) and last week gave us another example of common workplace issues at play in the world of sport.
Firstly, still in the world of cricket, the great Australian disappearing homework mystery. As many readers will know, Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke (the Australian coach and captain) banned four players from the last Test against India due to their failure to complete a ‘homework’ assignment. The assignment itself was not that onerous, requiring each player in the squad to exercise some introspection and write down just 3 thoughts as to how they and the team could improve prior to their next match. The thoughts could be emailed, texted, written on a scrap of paper and shoved under Mr Arthur’s door or indeed communicated in any way, so long as they were communicated prior to the deadline. Now, leaving aside the question of whether or not Australian cricketers are renowned for their introspection (can anyone imagine David Boon or Merv Hughes coming up with three thoughts that didn’t include either ‘beer’ or ‘barbie’?), failure to complete the task would not appear to be a crime so heinous as to warrant banishment from the squad. However, it appears that this was simply the latest in a litany of failings across the squad as a whole, including missed team meetings, poor attitude and failed ‘skin-fold tests’ (which apparently measure a player’s body-fat level….again, one wonders faintly how ‘Boonie’ or ‘Merv’ would have reacted to this) and that the sanction was a combination of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and ‘pour encourager les autres’.
Is this fair? Could an employer discipline an employee or employees for what is, on the face of it, a very minor indiscretion where the employee is part of a workforce who have as a group regularly committed such indiscretions? In practice, I think the answer is that an employer might. Whilst past precedent is of course important when considering how to handle any disciplinary matter, an employer is entitled to ‘draw a line in the sand’ and serve notice to employees that, whatever has been the practice in the past, future infractions will not be tolerated. In making such a decision, employers should of course be aware that any disciplinary sanction must be ‘within the range of reasonable responses’ and be imposed only after an appropriate investigation. We have to assume that Arthur and Clarke has made their displeasure clear earlier, but to no effect. An employer would not be acting reasonably to go straight from apparent indifference to volcanic loss of temper, but if earlier shots across the bows are ignored, action to make the point more robustly would seem hard to criticise.
So what lessons can be learned from the homework fiasco? Firstly, Australian cricketers are not what they used to be (or perhaps some of them are and that is the problem); secondly, Mickey Arthur has more in common with your primary school teacher than you might originally have thought; and thirdly, the test for any disciplinary sanction is not necessarily whether or not it is ‘fair’, but whether or not a reasonable employer could have given the same sanction in the circumstances. Although the decision to exclude the four from the Test has led to a storm of comment among cricket fans and commentators, that storm shows sharply divided opinions on its merits – that by itself suggests that an employer acting in the same way in the same circumstances would not fall outside the range of reasonable responses.