Cash-strapped BHP worker caught up in ‘web of lies’

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Cash-strapped BHP worker caught up in ‘web of lies’

A BHP worker with 30 years' service was fairly dismissed after he lied to obtain discretionary leave, travel assistance and electricity subsidies. The employee's mental illness had not impacted on his ability to tell the truth.

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A BHP worker with 30 years' service was fairly dismissed after he lied to obtain discretionary leave, travel assistance and electricity subsidies. The employee's mental illness had not impacted on his ability to tell the truth.

Financial difficulties led to depression


An electrical engineering technician, who had been with BHP for 30 years, owned his home as well as an investment property in Port Hedland. His wife and children moved to Perth in 2013 so the children could be educated there. In 2014, the technician encountered financial difficulties but could not sell the investment property because of the condition it was in. Instead he sold the family home. 

Early in 2015, the technician became unfit for work because of a severe depressive disorder. He sought medical help both in Perth and in Port Hedland, and returned to work on restricted duties in May 2015. In early July, he was on sick leave again and back in Perth, but his entitlement to sick leave ran out on 13 July.

Part of the stress the technician was under related to his housing problems. He felt better when he was in Perth with his family but had to be in Port Hedland for work. In October 2015, a psychiatric fitness for work assessment found that his unfitness for work was likely to continue for more than six months. Without the support of his family, it was thought his psychiatric symptoms would be exacerbated. 

The technician remained on discretionary sick leave until November 2015. At a meeting with a manager and an HR officer at work, he was told the employer was considering terminating his employment because he may be unfit for work for the foreseeable future.

The manager suggested conditions relating to his accommodation under which he could resume work. The manager was unaware that he owned an investment property in Port Hedland and shared it with tenants at times.

The web begins to unravel


In an interview on 31 December 2015, the technician’s managers alleged he had provided misleading information about his housing problems and had falsely claimed for electricity subsidies.

When he explained that his wife had chosen to move to Perth with the children, it became clear he had also falsely made annual leave travel assistance claims for the family, as if they lived at Port Hedland and were only going to Perth on short holidays. At a second interview, on 11 January 2016, the fraudulent travel assistance claims were again raised in more detail, and the technician admitted he had made them simply because he needed cash. 

The technician was then asked to attend a ‘show cause’ meeting on 14 January, and was told he had breached the employer’s code of business conduct on a number of occasions during 2015. He said he had not been in the right state of mind at the time. However, the managers had obtained advice from his doctor that his medical condition had not impacted on his capacity to tell the truth.

After a brief adjournment in the meeting, the technician’s employment was terminated with five weeks’ pay in lieu of notice. The reasons included that he had knowingly misled the employer and his doctors about his housing situation so that could get discretionary sick leave, which he would not otherwise have been given; he had made false travel assistance claims; and he had improperly claimed reimbursement for electricity disbursements.

The technician applied to the Fair Work Commission for an unfair dismissal remedy according to s394 of the Fair Work Act 2009.

Deputy president Binet accepted the employer’s evidence of the technician’s misconduct and was satisfied there were multiple valid reasons for his dismissal.

Damage to trust and confidence


The fact that the technician had provided the employer with inconsistent information for almost a year could not be explained on medical grounds. It had severely damaged the employer’s trust and confidence in him and this had, if anything, been made worse by his lack of remorse.

Deputy president Binet said it was a terrible pity that after nearly 30 years of service, the technician had to leave in such negative circumstances. However, he was a master of his own fate. He had "weaved such a complicated web of lies that now it is impossible to discern when he is telling the truth and when he is not". 

The dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

A v BHP Billiton Iron Ore Pty Ltd [2017] FWC 294 (13 January 2017)
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