A teacher at Sunraysia Institute of TAFE in regional Victoria was dismissed for serious misconduct after telling his class about an incident where a local farmer sprayed herbicide 2,4-D in a field.
The herbicide drifted onto farm workers nearby, leaving one with a bloody nose and another feeling nauseous. When the farmer realised, he shifted the spraying to another paddock.
One of farmer’s relatives was present in the class and at the end of the day told the farmer that the teacher had mentioned his name when he recounted the event.
This angered the farmer who then called the teacher that evening to complain. The teacher apologised for mentioning the farmer’s name and said he would also apologise to his class the next day and make it clear that the farmer had not done anything wrong.
Teacher sacked after apologising
In class the following day, the teacher delivered the apology and explained that the farmer had not acted wrongly.
Afterwards, the teacher claimed the course facilitator said to him words to the effect of “this is where it all ends and nothing would go further”.
The teacher took this to mean the issue would not be taken any further, however the course facilitator then made a complaint to the TAFE which led to the teacher being summarily dismissed for serious misconduct.
Part of the dismissal letter read:
“[T]he issues relating to tardiness and how you run your training delivery is of concern, however, using the name of an individual in a training environment demonstrates poor judgement and lack of professionalism which has a serious implication to the reputation of SuniTAFE. This key issue is what concerns SuniTAFE greatly and is viewed as serious misconduct.”
In the Fair Work Commission (FWC) unfair dismissal hearing, the teacher was cross-examined by a representative for the TAFE. He asked why he had mentioned the farmer’s name.
“The prime reason was because some of these young people would know him, and go, ‘Gee, it can happen to him’, and he’s one of these farmers out here that, you know, has been farming for years,” the teacher said.
While the teacher conceded it probably wasn’t appropriate to mention the farmer’s name in the lecture, he believed that he needed more training about the difference between working in the public sector and the private sector.
The teacher said he had learnt from the experience and that he could benefit from additional training about the TAFE’s expectations of him, beyond its induction process.
TAFE doesn’t know what misconduct is
FWC Commissioner Tim Lee found that it was “not apparent” why the teacher should not have used the farmer’s name.
“Essentially, [the teacher] has retold an actual event, using the actual name of the person involved. The telling of the story can hardly be said to be derogatory or even defamatory, as [the TAFE] at one point claimed, when the facts before me demonstrate that the event actually occurred as stated by [the teacher],” Commissioner Lee said.
“It is not apparent why using someone’s name as part of the retelling a factual story is misconduct at all, let alone serious misconduct.
“[The teacher] was not to know that [the farmer] would be upset by him speaking of the event.
“Nevertheless, [the teacher], when confronted during a phone call from an upset [farmer], a man who by all accounts is a significant member of the Mildura community, takes an entirely sensible and reasonable approach.
“He apologises directly to [the farmer] for using his name and tells him he will apologise to the class. [The teacher] follows through with his promise.
“[I]n light of the fact the events did occur, there is no evidence of any risk to the reputation of [the TAFE] as a result of the incident.”
Commissioner Lee found the TAFE had no valid reason to dismiss the teacher and ordered that it reinstate him.
The TAFE was also ordered to compensate the teacher for 32 weeks’ pay, reduced by 25% for a previous incident where the teacher had breached the TAFE’s email policy when he emailed a former employer.