A Frenchman recently made headlines for suing his employer for giving him boring work. Frédérick Desnard claims that he suffers from bore out (as opposed to burn out) because his employer gave him meaningless, mundane tasks to perform. He is reported to be claiming around €360 000 from his employer as the work left him "destroyed" and suffering from "serious depression". This raises interesting questions about the legal position in South Africa. Does an employee have a right to interesting work?
The short answer
The short answer is no, but in certain circumstances, maybe. Our Constitution guarantees every employee the right to fair labour practices. Our various employment statutes give effect to this constitutional guarantee. The Labour Relations Act (LRA), for instance, provides that employees have the right not to be dismissed unfairly and obliges employers to act fairly in relation to its labour practices. The LRA lists various statutory unfair labour practices. It states, for instance, that an employer may not act unfairly in its labour practices relating to demotion, provision of benefits or training. It holds further that the employer may not make continued employment intolerable for the employee.
When we evaluate an employee's rights against that background, we can see circumstances where an employer acts unfairly in removing key tasks from an employee's role and only leaving him with worthless functions. Our employment tribunal and labour court previously held that an employer unfairly demoted an employee where it has diminished his status. Similarly, an employee may claim that the employer committed an unfair labour practice by denying him access to training where others in a similar position received such opportunity. Where the employee is denied benefits as a result of being relegated to the empty office the employer may be taken to task for its labour practice relating to the provision of such benefits. In extreme circumstances an employee could resign and claim that the employer constructively dismissed him by making continued employment intolerable. Constructive dismissal claims are notoriously difficult to prove as the employee has to show that it was the employer's culpable conduct that made continued employment intolerable, objectively speaking.
Distinguishing between the right to fair labour practices and the right to interesting work
It is important to distinguish between an employee's right not to be subjected to unfair treatment in relation to his duties or continued employment, on the one hand, and an employee's claim to be given interesting work, on the other hand. Generally speaking, it could be unfair of an employer to reduce an employee's existing (exciting) role to boring tasks only, especially where this is done for an ulterior motive. Monsoir Desnard's claim is exactly that - he was effectively shelved and left with nothing to do. However, employees do not have a general, enforceable right to be given interesting or meaningful work. Many employees face the drudgery of a mundane job that does nothing but pay the bills. An employer's obligation to act fairly in relation to its labour practices, or its duty to refrain from acts aimed to destroy the employment relationship, does not translate into a right for the employee to demand interesting work. If that was the case many existing positions would become redundant solely on the basis that the roles are boring with no mental stimulation or growth. Alas, this is not a sound basis to declare the roles of politicians redundant…
In most instances, though, employees do not even have a general right to demand and be given work. An employer's common law obligations include receiving the employee into service, remunerating him and providing safe working conditions. Save for the statutory protection described above, an employer is not obliged to give employees work. Our courts have come to the assistance of staff relying on work to earn a living. For instance, sales representatives can claim that the employer acts unfairly where it deprives them of work and thus the ability to earn commission. A media personality that has to be in the public eye can complain about his employer's decision to stick him behind a desk, away from the media and public, as this could negatively impact on his marketability and future work.
Setting aside the legal niceties, best practice is to ensure that employees are given opportunities to grow and realise their potential. Employers who do not find ways of spicing up mundane jobs are likely to constantly find replacements for staff moving on to better things and leaving their boring jobs behind. Global industry leaders appreciate the need for staff to be motivated and excited to tackle their daily tasks - they find ways of injecting challenges and opportunities to grow into otherwise dreary roles. Training staff to fulfil the functions of another or higher post could assist in creating bench strength and also alleviate the grind of mindless tasks faced by employees in dead-end jobs. Implementing innovative practices could not only increase motivation and morale, but can also prevent your company from the ignominy of being the first South African company to face a bore out claim.
This article was first published in The Star Workplace on 24 August 2016.