What’s the harm in a little white lie?

9 Jul 2014
Author: Andrea Twaddle

It is commonly accepted that an employee can be dismissed for serious misconduct arising from dishonest behaviour. However, there has been confusion among some employers in the past, whether an employee may be dismissed if, during the course of an inquiry into alleged misconduct, suspicion arises that the employee may be guilty of misconduct of a different kind, including lying to the employer.

The law in these circumstances was clarified in a recent Court of Appeal decision, where the Court upheld as justified, the decision of Auckland City Council for dismissing an employee, where the employee misled the Council during a disciplinary interview.

The employee, a Council Manager, had allegedly broken Council’s hiring policy, by employing a temporary worker. That allegation was one of misconduct and if the Council had found the allegation proven, the most severe disciplinary option available to Council would be to formally warn the employee.

However, the Council became concerned that the employee had not been truthful during the disciplinary investigation meeting. As a consequence, it raised new and more serious allegations of dishonesty as part of the disciplinary proceedings. The employee was ultimately dismissed on those grounds.

The Court of Appeal clarified that an employer in these circumstances, i.e. who becomes concerned that an employee is not providing a truthful response to the employer, is not required to conclude the disciplinary process already in train and embark on a new or parallel process. This would lead to unnecessary complexity, delay and inefficiency.

The Court’s decision provides clarity for employers and is consistent with the legislative intention that unnecessary complexity should not be introduced into employment investigations. For employees, it is a timely reminder that a “little white lie” can bite. The relationship of trust and confidence, which underpins every employment relationship, can easily be destroyed by acts of dishonesty, however seemingly inconsequential at the time, and employees caught out misleading or deceiving their employers can expect to face disciplinary action as a result.

This article was first published in the Waikato Times, 9 July 2014.

What’s the harm in a little white lie?
About the Author
Andrea Twaddle
Andrea is an experienced specialist employment lawyer and Director at DTI Lawyers. She advises on contentious and non-contentious employment law issues, including privacy, and health and safety matters. Andrea is AWI-CH qualified, and undertakes complex workplace investigations. She is a member of the national Law Society Employment Law Reform Committee, a former Council Member at the WBOP District Branch of the Law Society, and Coordinator of the WBOP Employment Law Committee. Andrea is a sought-after commentator and speaker on employment law issues at client and industry seminars. She provides specialist, strategic advice to other lawyers, professional advisors and leadership teams. You can contact Andrea at andrea@dtilawyers.co.nz