Discipline and Dismissal

Ivan Israelstam

I was recently retained by an employer to assist with preparing for a Labour Court review case. The employer had dismissed an employee for theft amounting to R11 000, but the CCMA, arbitrating on the resultant unfair dismissal claim, had forced the employer to reinstate him.

I was puzzled by the CCMA's decision because, on discussing the case with the employer, I unearthed strong evidence that the employee deserved to be dismissed. However, on further investigation, I discovered that most of the evidence that the employer had against the employee had not been presented at the hearing.

The reason for this was that the charging officer had neither conducted a proper pre-hearing investigation into the alleged theft, nor had she properly prepared her witnesses and documents for the disciplinary hearing.

The result was that the evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing and at arbitration was insufficient to justify the guilty finding of the chairperson of the disciplinary hearing or the subsequent dismissal of the employee.

The employer lost the case at CCMA not because the CCMA arbitrator was biased, incompetent or mistaken, but because the case presented was very weak. This was a tragic outcome for the employer because, in effect, there was evidence that was strong enough to win the case, but that evidence was never presented at the hearing.

This problem of weak case presentation occurs quite often at CCMA hearings. There are two important reasons for this. The person presenting the case for the employer may be insufficiently trained and therefore unskilled in case presentation.

Alternatively, the employer may have failed to prepare the evidence properly.

The reasons for this failure include:

  • The employer does not want to spend the time necessary to carry out proper preparations for the hearing
  • The employer does not know how to prepare properly for a disciplinary hearing.

However, where the manager responsible for bringing the case on behalf of the employer fails to do so properly, the likelihood is that the CCMA arbitrator's decision will go against the employer. This is because the employer has the full onus of proving that the employee was guilty and that the misconduct merited dismissal as opposed to less drastic and more corrective disciplinary steps.

For this reason it is vital that all managers and other staff responsible for discipline acquire a full understanding of how to prepare for and present a case at a disciplinary or arbitration hearing.

The steps for preparing a case include:

  • Assessing the allegations to establish whether they have been brought in good faith or whether the accuser has a hidden agenda.
  • Investigating the circumstances of the alleged incident(s).
  • Assessing the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the alleged incidents of misconduct.
  • Evaluating the evidence gathered in the investigation to establish whether it constitutes proof or not.
  • Formulating the charges to be brought against the accused at the disciplinary hearing.
  • Establishing who will present the evidence at the disciplinary or arbitration hearing.
  • Deciding which witnesses and other evidence will be used.
  • Preparing questions for the employer's witnesses.
  • Preparing questions to be used in order to cross-examine the evidence brought by the accused.
  • Preparing a draft closing statement.

In the recently heard case of NUM and others v RSA Geological Services, a division of De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited (2004 1 BALR 1) the employer dismissed all the employees of its laboratory because a large quantity of kimberlite sample was found hidden on the premises.

It was believed that the employees did this in order to falsely enhance their sorting rate and thus qualify for a performance bonus. While the employer was able to prove that three of the employees had been involved in the scam, there was insufficient evidence presented to merit the dismissal of several others.

The employees were therefore reinstated. Had the employer prepared properly for the hearing and had it brought sufficient evidence that all employees had been involved in the deception, it would have been unlikely to have had to reinstate the dismissed employees.

This indicates the crucial need for expert skills in preparation for and presentation of evidence at a disciplinary hearing. Employers and managers are not born with these skills. They either need to hire or to arrange for managers to be trained in how to prepare evidence for disciplinary hearings and how to present such evidence successfully.

  • Ivan Israelstam is the chief executive of Labour Law Management Consulting. He can be contacted on 011-888-7944 or e-mailed at [email protected]
  • Our appreciation to Ivan and The Star newspaper for permission to publish this article


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