It is a commonly accepted principle of employment that employees are required to carry out reasonable and lawful instructions given by their employers in the course of carrying out their duties. However, what constitutes a “reasonable and lawful” instruction is not always as clear as demonstrated in the recent unfair dismissal case between Bradley Sheldrick and Hazeldene Chicken Farms.
The Fair Work Commission heard that Bradley Sheldrick refused to respond to calls and text messages during a three week period of annual leave in late 2013, and that his employer (Hazeldene Chicken Farms) subsequently demanded that he enter into a new contract of employment requiring him to be on call 13 weeks a year (which he also refused).
Hazeldene argued Sheldrick’s refusal to accept “reasonable and lawful directions” constituted a valid reason for unfair dismissal.
The Fair Work Commission disagreed finding that Hazeldene had no legal right to force or compel Sheldrick to accept a unilateral variation of his contract of employment. Similarly, the Commission commented that “employees are entitled to annual leave without interruption” and that Sheldrick could not be required to be on call during a period of annual leave under his existing contract of employment.
The dismissal was subsequently assessed as unfair and Sheldrick was awarded $7,125 plus superannuation in compensation.
Whether a particular instruction given by an employer is a lawful and reasonable one will require an examination of the circumstances of each case. Generally speaking, an instruction that is outside the scope of the employee’s contractual obligations is unlikely to meet the test.