Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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A worker’s worst nightmare shows why communications matters for employers

Published 28 May 2013 11:58, Updated 30 May 2013 07:59

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A worker’s worst nightmare shows why communications matters for employers

Jenny Doyle with pictures of her slain daughter, Kara. Photo: Peter Merkesteyn

How should a company respond when one of its employees is dealing with the murder of a child?

Well, sometimes, you follow the letter of the law and company policy and, other times, you follow your heart.

In a devastating story in the Sydney Morning Herald , Australian Commercial Catering is accused of sacking the manager of its catering operations at a Mulwala factory and pursuing her for $850, a sum of money missing from the day she rushed to Melbourne to the bedside of her dying 25-year-old daughter.

Jenny Doyle’s daughter Kara was shot in the stomach and dumped at a nearby petrol station last month. She died five days later.

While she was waiting with Kara in the hospital, Doyle received a text from her area manager asking whether she had done the banking and where the canteen keys were.

“I was in the intensive care unit with Kara, and I was really upset because it wasn’t a ‘how are you, how’s everything going’,’’ Doyle told The Age justice editor, Dan Oakes.

The company was concerned that $1500 was not accounted for from the day Kara had been shot. When she left work to be with her daughter, Doyle (who managed the catering operations) had a $300 float for the canteen in her car.

She later returned it to the company and says she had left the rest of the missing money by a computer in the office at work.

To help with her grieving, Doyle’s GP provided her with a medical certificate to say she would not be able to work until the end of July – three months. However, when she contacted Centrelink to inquire about any benefits that might help tide her over while she was not working, Centrelink staff informed her that the company had said she no longer worked there.

Company claims misunderstanding

The managing director of Australian Commercial Catering, Peter Darmos, denies that Doyle’s employment was terminated and says the company had issued her a letter three weeks after the shooting saying it was “unable to keep the position open until 29/07/2013 due to the position type and location of site’’ and that she would receive entitlements within two weeks.

He says the letter was sent on Doyle’s request to inform her of her entitlements and so she could access Centrelink benefits.

Doyle’s lawyer, John Suta, of Nevin Lenne & Gross says the letter had the effect of disallowing Centrelink benefits because of the leave that was paid to her.

Darmos says his company has tried to help Doyle through her bereavement by pre-paying leave, sending flowers and by having representatives attend Kara’s funeral.

He says noone from the company has phoned to talk to Doyle because “HR did not see it as appropriate to be ringing her when she is going through a grieving stage”.

He says he could not just write off the missing money because of concerns that suspicions of theft may fall on others.

“You can’t say it is a small amount of money, whether it is $10 or $1500 – which it was,” he says.

“We have an obligation to investigate,” he says, adding that the company is audited and has a responsibility to its clients and its banks.

“The timing is unfortunate”, he says. “We can’t say ‘Don’t worry about this money’.”

“We are a small family company and we like to think we look after our employees well,” he says, adding there have been times the company had paid rent for employees or paid for new tyres for their cars when they were in need.

He says he believes “someone” may be “taking advantage of these unfortunate circumstances” and hoping to make money through selling interviews to television current affairs shows.

A question of culture

The CEO of employee assistance company, Davidson Trahaire Corpsych, Michele Grow, says the way companies respond to employees who are in need can depend on the culture of their organisations.

The legislated benefits around bereavement leave are quite limited, she says, but some employers do not have a “black and white” view about what their responsibilities are.

“There are some companies who stick to the letter of the law and there are others who are far more generous.”

One of the difficulties in cases like this one is that employers are often reluctant to actually talk to their grieving employee: “they are increasingly reliant on texts and email”.

“Why don’t you just talk to people?”

She says employers should try and keep a perspective on what is “fair and reasonable”.

Press Release from Australian Commercial Catering

PRESS RELEASE 28/05/2013 Re Jenny Marie Doyle Following the tragic circumstances and the passing of Ms Doyle’s daughter, the Human Resources Department of Australian Commercial Catering Pty Ltd sent their condolence with flowers and sent a company representative to attend the funeral by way of support. Ms Doyle informed the company that she would (understandably) not be medically fit to return to her Chef Manager duties for approximately 3 months. In the interim the company was requested to provide formal documentation to Centrelink presumably for Ms Doyle to obtain appropriate benefits. The company responded with appropriate documentation in the hope that this would assist Ms Doyle obtain the relevant benefits. The company also advised Ms Doyle of her entitlements and confirmed it would pay these entitlements to assist her during this difficult time. During Ms Doyle’s absenteeism another issue arose in that an amount of money could not be reconciled and the company wrote to Ms Doyle requesting an explanation. This investigation is still ongoing and the company confirms that Ms Doyle has now refunded to the company a sum of $300 of the missing funds. On 27/05/2013 the Human Resources Department of Australian Commercial Catering Pty Ltd received an Unfair Dismissal Claim by Ms Doyle. The Human Resources Department immediately referred this matter to Mr Peter Darmos the Managing Director of Australian Commercial Catering Pty Ltd. Mr Darmos immediately wrote back to Ms Doyle’s lawyers confirming that Ms Doyle’s employment had in fact never been terminated and seeking an explanation as to why previous correspondence by the company was misconstrued. The response by Mr Darmos confirming that Ms Doyle’s employment had never been terminated was sent 1.16pm and the Unfair Dismissal Application was received 10.04am the same day and well prior to any media involvement. The claim by Ms Doyle is a complete surprise to the company and Mr Darmos has confirmed that anyone including the media that wishes to make any mileage of this unfortunate circumstance must first be fully appraised and informed as to the factual matrix outlined above. The company is awaiting a response from Ms Doyle’s representative to confirm suitable return to work arrangements pending the finalisation of the investigation. We ask the media to show restraint and understanding in these very unfortunate and sad circumstances. Australian Commercial Catering Pty Ltd has and will continue to give Ms Doyle appropriate assistance as requested.