Is there a need for a change of title to reflect the role of HR practitioners?

In a recent Fair Work Commission (FWC) case there was criticism of how HR dealt with an employee dismissal. The person was emailed notification of his dismissal while on leave for alleged mental health issues. Reported by Workplace Express (15th May 2017) the Fair Work Commissioner described the approach as ‘unfortunate’ and gave a warning that ‘treating workers as human resources runs the risk of ignoring that they are “easily damaged” human beings and that “when faulty they should be handled with more care than machines”.’ Commissioner Cambridge was reported as stating that HR specialists may ‘benefit from a re-naming of their vocation.’

The Commissioner indicated that employee management practices need to ensure that an opportunity for the employee to have access to a ‘show cause’ meeting to respond to the alleged issues would enable the decision maker to assess whether to proceed to dismissal. A key message was that employees should be informed in a manner that is respectful and maintains the ‘basic standards of human dignity’ and that ‘communication of the notification of dismissal by electronic means should be strenuously avoided’.

Although not a client of ours, through an associate, we are aware of one person who was informed their contract was not being renewed by text message. It was known that the person had recently lost his brother, mother and was away from work to be with his dying father. He received the text message that due to his absence, that his contract would not be renewed. This occurred approximately half an hour before his father passed. The situation occurred some six months ago; however he has not pursued the matter due to dealing with his grief and subsequent depression.

In the FWC case, it was noted that the organisation had treated the employee’s absence from work as the person ‘refusing to work’, which the Commissioner cautioned against unless ‘it can be established that the illness is not genuine’. The employee was dismissed on the basis of ‘allegedly refusing reasonable directions to return to work’. The Commissioner stated that the Company had ‘erroneously translated’ the person’s ‘incapacity arising from mental health issues as a refusal to work’.

In reviewing this case and with our knowledge of the other situation, the Commissioner’s comments make a great deal of sense. People need to be provided with the benefit of the doubt with respect to their mental health issues which may affect their capacity to work and also afforded respect in how processes occur, how they are communicated with and for such issues to be taken into account when very serious decisions are made pertaining to their employment. The notion that Human Resources could be potentially more about Human Relations is interesting. Maybe it is time to change the terminology to reflect more aptly that we deal with human beings, with their own needs, possible health issues, physical or mental, rather than as mechanical resources.

Reference: Workplace Express,, 15 May 2017. Case: John Finnegan v Komatsu Forklift Australia Pty Ltd [2017] FWC 2433 (10 May 2017)