The recent Employment Relations Authority (“Authority”) determination of Hallwright v Forsyth Barr Ltd serves as a timely reminder to all employees that what they do (or don’t do) outside of their working hours can have an impact on their right to continued employment. Hallwright, an employee of Forsyth Barr Limited (“FBL”), was involved in a “road-rage” incident (“incident”) in September 2010 in which he inadvertently drove over a fellow road user (causing injury) after an altercation. Hallwright’s actions were not carried out in the course of his employment and there was nothing in his actions capable of identifying either the nature of his employment or his employer. However, in the significant media attention which followed the incident, information about his employer and his senior position within FBL’s organisation was published. Also published was incorrect information about Hallwright’s intention at the time of the incident. As a result of the incident Hallwright was charged with causing grievous bodily harm. Hallwright did not initially inform FBL that he was either involved in the incident, or that he had been charged. When FBL was made aware of the above, Hallwright protested his innocence and indicated that the change would be strongly defended. Taking the stance of “innocent until proven guilty”, FBL initially chose to be supportive of Hallwright, and did not draw to his attention the potentially serious implications the incident could have on his continued employment. Some 18 months later Hallwright was convicted of the charge of causing grievous bodily harm. Almost immediately Hallwright was invited to a series of meetings with FBL to discuss his future employment. As a result of his conviction, FBL considered that Hallwright’s actions amounted to “conduct bringing [FBL] into disrepute” and “activity that [was] likely to compromise [Hallwright’s] ability to carry out [Hallwright’s] duties”. FBL was also concerned about its reputation as there had been extensive media coverage of the incident displaying both Hallwright, and consequently FBL, in a negative light. The negative media coverage resulted in a number of queries from the public as to how FBL could employ someone like Hallwright. FBL ultimately found that Hallwright’s actions had brought FBL into disrepute, damaged FBL’s reputation, and compromised Hallwright’s ability to carry out his duties; on that basis Hallwright was dismissed. The Authority found that in all the circumstances, including the high public profile of FBL, the seniority of Hallwright’s position within FBL, and the nature of the work Hallwright performed (which required both integrity and an element of public confidence in Hallwright) a fair and reasonable employer could have reached the conclusions that FBL reached, and Hallwright’s dismissal was justified. This was despite FBL not being able to provide any evidence of damage to its reputation, and the fact that Hallwright had continued to carry out his normal duties between the date of the incident and the date of his dismissal – some 20 months. While this decision turns on the circumstances of FBL and Hallwright, and not all employers could justifiably dismiss an employee for their involvement in such an incident, it is a reminder to all employees that their conduct outside of their workplace can have an impact on their continued employment.
By Chris Patterson