An employer has learnt a costly lesson about discrimination, after being found to have unlawfully discriminated against a former employee.  The employer was ordered to pay over $80,000 as compensation plus interest.

What happened?

The employee sought flexibility from his employer to look after his partner, who had been diagnosed with cancer and required intensive medical treatment over a short period of time.  The employee’s manager and his manager’s wife, who were also employed in the business, did not approve of the employee’s decision to care for his partner, as she had previously cheated on him with another man.  The employee was ultimately dismissed by the company.

After the employee was dismissed, he made a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, claiming that his employer had engaged in unlawful discrimination against him under:

  • the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) on the basis of his family responsibilities; and
  • the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) because of his status as an associate of a person with his disability (because his partner had cancer).

Decision

The Court found that the employee was dismissed wholly or in part because of his employer’s disapproval of his care of his terminally ill partner and their perception about its impact on their business operations.

The Court also found that the employee was subject to other discrimination during the course of his employment, including:

  • being told that he should leave or ‘get rid’ of his partner and not stay home to look after her;
  • not being given time off to look after his partner;
  • his supervisor refusing to speak to him about his requests to take time off and hanging up on him during telephone conversations;
  • being pressured to perform overtime work and being berated for not being available to work overtime;
  • being required to attend work and not leave until after he finished tasks;
  • derogatory comments being made about his partner;
  • having his status in the workplace downgraded by no longer performing managerial functions and no longer having keys to his workplace; and
  • being told that that work should come before his partner and that he had cost the company a lot of money because of his caring duties.

The employee was awarded $81,213.46 plus interest as compensation.

Lessons for employers

Employers should ensure that their employees, particularly managers, are aware of the potential consequences of their actions. 

In this case, the employee’s supervisor and colleagues disapproved of decisions the employee made in his personal life and their disapproval manifested itself in what were ultimately found to be discriminatory acts.  As highlighted, the financial and reputational consequences for organisations can be disastrous.

Employers should have clear and objective policies and procedures relating to appropriate workplace behaviour and flexible working arrangements.

To manage risk, employers must ensure that all employees receive training on those policies and procedures – including training about the potential consequences of engaging in behaviour contrary to anti-discrimination laws and company policy.