Some behaviours clearly warrant immediate termination, such as engaging in criminal activity or misconduct at work. However, when it comes to Employment Law, there a certainly some grey areas. For example, “can you lose your job for discussing your pay with colleagues?. New South Lawyers' Associate Lee Hooks discusses a recent matter in Australian Law that dealt with this exact issue.

Can you lose your job for discussing your pay with colleagues?

According to a recent decision handed down by the Federal Circuit Court in Queensland, the answer is Yes. In the case of Australian Meat Industry Employees Union v Primo Foods Pty Ltd [2022] FedCFamC2G 540, the Court found the employee, who was terminated by JBS-owned Primo Foods, was lawfully terminated for discussing salary and ongoing negotiations with other co-workers in breach of the company’s confidentiality policy.  The termination arose at a time when Primo Foods were undergoing salary negotiations across the board. They were also transitioning their Quality Assurance team from an hourly rate system to salaried positions.

A deli-cate balance ... 

The Meat Industry Employees Union of Australia, who represented the Employee, claimed the dismissal was unlawful as the decision involved consideration of a previously made complaint, Bullying Application and a claims for personal leave and Worker’s Compensation. If proven, the Fair Work Act prohibits such reasons for termination and deems them to be adverse action. On the other hand, Primo Foods claimed that discussing confidential salary information was against their code of conduct. And therefore warranted termination. The primary reason for the termination was the employee's breach of confidentiality and privacy. Although they had also received a prior warning for a separate matter.

Bringing home the bacon

Despite Primo Foods informing the employee that individual employment conditions should remain strictly confidential and that such offers were not to be shared around with other employees, the company provided evidence that the Employee, among other things: Firstly, had discussed the details of their offers with other colleagues. Secondly, the employee had knowledge of the salary offered to other staff and the status of their ongoing negotiations. Thirdly, knew staff members were unhappy with their offers. And helped a colleague to draft an email to negotiate her offer. Consequently, Primo Food thought it appropriate to terminate the employee’s employment as he “was in possession of confidential information in breach of [the Company’s] group code of conduct and ethics, had discussions with members of the QA team about the confidential terms and conditions of their contracts of employment; and that in doing so during his ongoing contract negotiations, [the employee] was guilty of misconduct justifying the termination of his employment.”

So, can lose your job for discussing your pay with colleagues?

Ultimately, the Court found that:  Firstly, Primo Foods successfully rebutted the presumption that the decision to terminate involved adverse action. And that the decision maker was unaffected by any of the matters pleaded by the Union as constituting prohibited reasons for such termination. Secondly, Primo Foods had the right to take measures they deemed necessary to address the severity of the code of conduct violation. Finally, the termination was lawful and did not breach any work place rights. This ruling certainly suggests that discussion of confidential information - specifically that related to salary - can be grounds for fair dismissal. However, we suggest speaking to an experienced Employment Law Lawyer who can guide you through the matter unique to your situation.   New South Lawyers’ communications are intended to provide commentary and general information and not relied upon as legal advice. Seek formal legal advice in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication.

To find out more, chat with New South Lawyers' Employment Lawyer today.