The 2005 Amended Code of sexual harassment talks of “…unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that violates the rights of an employee and constitutes a barrier to equity in the workplace, taking into account all of the following factors: 4.1 whether the harassment is on the prohibited grounds of sex and/or gender and/or sexual orientation; 4.2 whether the sexual conduct was unwelcome; 4.3 the nature and extent of the sexual conduct; and 4.4, the impact of the sexual conduct on the employee.”
But what if an allegation of sexual harassment is false? In such circumstances, is an employer entitled to take disciplinary action against the apparent wrongful accuser?
In the Labour Court judgment in the case of NUM obo Salaminah v the CCMA & 2 others (Case number JR1416/19), the employee had been found guilty and dismissed for “falsely and/or maliciously accused (her manager) of sexual harassment” during a disciplinary hearing which she did not participate in. At the CCMA arbitration hearing, her dismissal was held to have been procedurally and substantively fair. She took this finding on review to the Labour Court.
The back ground to this case was that the employee had been charged with three acts of alleged misconduct. It was however the third allegation that stood out. It was namely “failing to comply with the (employer’s) conditions of service, procedures and directives in that on 24 February 2014 (you) had falsely and/or maliciously accused (her manager) of sexual harassment”.
Her version was that “On 24 February 2014 (she) went to see (her manager) about her request for a car allowance which had not been finalised. She alleges that at that meeting he had told her that if she slept with him he would grant the car allowance. (her manager) denies such discussion. The following day she lodged a grievance in that regard demanding a written apology. The first grievance hearing found the complaint unproved”.
The employer’s first witness testified that “some time before the incident of 24 February 2014 the Applicant had been speaking to him and had told him that if (her manager) did not give her a car allowance she would blackmail him by raising a sexual harassment grievance. At the time, he thought she was only joking and had thought nothing of it until she lodged her grievance against (her manager). (Her manager) gave evidence about the events of 24 February 2014 and his demand that the matter be further investigated thereafter”.
It was submitted that the employer “took allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and once it had been found that the allegations were without proof it was harmful to an ongoing employment relationship. Essentially, the Applicant was found to have falsely laid a complaint of sexual harassment. Such conduct is detrimental to any ongoing employment relationship”.
For various reasons highlighted in the judgment, the Labour Court upheld the dismissal of the employee on grounds that she had falsely and maliciously accused the manager of sexual harassment.
Whilst there were various allegations of procedural unfairness, none of them were held to have been so serious as to have prejudiced the employee.
Whilst employers are duty bound to robustly investigate and address allegations of sexual harassment, and indeed any form of harassment, it is equally arguable that false and malicious allegations of sexual harassment equally warrant thorough investigation.
It is precisely for this reason that employers should sensitise all employees on the nature and implications of sexual harassment, to ensure that cases of this nature are kept to a minimum.
In the Labour Court case of EOH Abantu v (Pty) Ltd [Case No. JA4/18], the employee had been found guilty of a charge that was not specified in the employer’s charge sheet. In short, the employee had been found guilty of gross negligence, when gross negligence was not specifically included in the charge sheet. On the contrary, the charge sheet included allegations of, amongst other things, dishonesty, theft and fraud. The employee was the dismissed.
What makes this case particularly interesting is the fact that he employee was found guilty of, and dismissed, for misconduct which did not appear anywhere on his charge sheet. Put differently, the employee “was found to have committed the offences although it was not established that he had acted intentionally”.
The employee lodged an unfair dismissal claim at the CCMA. At the arbitration, the Commissioner held that the employee’s dismissal was substantively unfair, as the employee “had been found guilty of the offence of gross negligence with which he had not been charged”.
The arbitration award continued that “It is common cause that the chairperson of the disciplinary enquiry could not find any dishonesty on the (employee’s) part but instead he found the (employee’s) actions grossly negligent” and “I find that the (employer) is bound by the choices it made at the time of charging the (employee)”.
The employer took the arbitration award on review at the Labour Court, and lost. The Labour Court upheld “the arbitrator had correctly found that the employer did not discharge the onus of proving intent, and thus could not prove the misconduct that it had alleged. That is why the dismissal was unfair”.
As also held by the Labour Court, the employee was charged with dishonesty, “that is the case he went to meet and that is the case that the employer could not prove”.
On appeal, the Labour Appeal Court had an entirely different view on this issue, in essence posing the question – had the Commissioner acted unreasonably “in concluding that a finding of negligence was not a competent verdict under the charge”?
In its judgment, the Labour Appeal court acknowledged that “it is always best for the charges to be precisely formulated and given to the employee in advance of the hearing in order to afford a fair opportunity for preparation … however by the same token, courts and arbitrators must not adopt too formalistic or technical an approach. It normally will be sufficient if the employee has adequate notice and information to ascertain what act of misconduct he is alleged to have committed. The categorisation by the employer of the alleged misconduct is of less importance”.
This view was further supported in the judgment which further held that “Employers embarking on disciplinary proceedings, not being skilled legal practitioners, sometimes define or restrict the alleged misconduct too narrowly or incorrectly. For example, it is not uncommon for an employee to be charged with theft and for the evidence at the disciplinary enquiry or arbitration to establish the offence of unathorised possession or use of company property. The principle in such cases is that provided a workplace standard has been contravened, which the employee knew (or reasonably should have known) could form the basis for discipline, and no significant prejudice flowed from the incorrect characterisation, an appropriate disciplinary sanction may be imposed”.
This is an entirely sensible judgment, and essentially deals with circumstances in which the alleged act of misconduct is proved on a balance of probabilities, but the employer mistakenly attributes blameworthiness to intent, rather than negligence.
The judgment went further to add that “ .. the is no requirement that competent verdicts on disciplinary charges should be mentioned in the charge sheet – subject though to the general principle that the employee should not be prejudiced.
Make no mistake, care must be taken when drafting allegations of misconduct in disciplinary cases.
CCMA and Bargaining Council Commissioners must conduct arbitration impartially, and in an unbiased fashion. When there is a perception of bias, a party can challenge the offensive conduct.
This is precisely what occurred in the recent Labour Court case between Dorothy Khosa v City of Johannesburg & 2 others [Case no: JR135/16]. As noted in the judgment, “The main grounds for this review is that it is contended that the Commissioner failed to apply his mind, committed misconduct, was biased, committed a gross irregularity and/or acted unreasonably or unjustifiably and/or irrationally, in that he “descended into the arena of the conflict between the parties and thus prevented himself from assessing with due impartiality the credibility of the witnesses and the probabilities relating to the issues.”
It was further contended by the applicant that “the Commissioner failed to apply his mind, committed misconduct, was biased, committed a gross irregularity and/or acted unreasonably or unjustifiably and/or irrationally, in that he “descended into the arena of the conflict between the parties and thus prevented himself from assessing with due impartiality the credibility of the witnesses and the probabilities relating to the issues.”
In supporting these assertions, it was further argued that “In support of these grounds, (the applicant contended) that the Commissioner failed to respect the roles of the parties’ respective representatives and assumed to himself the role of leading evidence and conducting cross-examination; that he failed to conduct the arbitration proceedings in a fair, consistent and even-handed manner; that the nature and scope of the Commissioner’s interventions were such that he failed to afford the parties a fair hearing, and that his conduct gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias.”
Apprehensions of bias occur frequently at the CCMA and bargaining Councils. Let’s face it, in every arbitration hearing there is a winner and a loser; the losers can be prone to blaming a one-eyed Commissioner for the loss, rather than facing up to the fact that they may have simply lost on the merits, or demerits, of their case.
The judgment noted that “in Baur Research CC v Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and others as follows, ‘What this means is that where it comes to an arbitrator acting ultra vires his or her powers or committing misconduct that would deprive a party of a fair hearing, the issue of a reasonable outcome is simply not relevant. In such instances, the reviewable defect is found in the actual existence of the statutory prescribed review ground itself and if it exists, the award cannot be sustained, no matter what the outcome may or may not have been. Examples of this are where the arbitrator should have afforded legal representation but did not or where the arbitrator conducted himself or herself during the course of the arbitration in such a manner so as to constitute bias or prevent a party from properly stating its case or depriving a party of a fair hearing. The reason for reasonable outcome not being an issue is that these kinds of defects deprive a party of procedural fairness, which is something different from the concept of process related irregularity. …” [2014 (35) ILJ 1528 (LC).
So, had the Commissioner “descended into the arena of the conflict between the parties and thus prevented himself from assessing with due impartiality the credibility of the witnesses and the probabilities relating to the issues”? Not so held the Court.
On the contrary, it was held that “The Commissioner was, on a holistic consideration of the record, even-handed and consistent in his approach in relation to questioning witnesses. He did not seek to undermine (applicant’s) case in soliciting the information he did. There is in the circumstances, no basis on which to conclude that a reasonable apprehension of bias arose.”
“(The applicant) had the onus to show that the Commissioner acted mala fide and in breach of his duties so as to afford City of JHB an unfair advantage. She failed to do.”
The judgment continued that “I believe that the Commissioner conducted the arbitration proceedings in a fair and proper manner. Where he intervened in the proceedings, it was simply for the purposes of clarity and to steer the process”.