South African labour law requires employers to afford employees numerous procedural rights before being dismissed for misconduct or poor performance. This includes the right to:
- prepare for the hearing
- the assistance of a representative
- an interpreter
- bring witnesses
- cross examine witnesses brought against them
- an impartial presiding officer chairing the hearing.
Other than under a few isolated exceptional circumstances these rights are strongly entrenched.
More employers are starting to afford employees some of these rights but are still falling short as regards the employees’ right to an impartial hearing chairperson. The reasons for this include:
- The employer’s intention is to hold a kangaroo court and get the employee fired regardless of the consequences; OR
- Those employees assigned the task of chairing hearings are not properly trained; OR
- The employer does not understand what constitutes bias.
There are in fact a number of factors that may suggest that the hearing chairperson could be biased. These include, amongst others, situations where the chairperson:
- has previously had a clash with the accused employee
- has prior knowledge of the details of the case
- unreasonably turns down requests from the employee for representation, witnesses, an interpreter, or other requirements
- makes a finding that is unsupported by the facts brought before the hearing.
What does not necessarily constitute bias is the relationship of the chairperson to the employer’s representative or refusal by the chairperson to allow legally impermissible evidence, to hear irrelevant testimony or to allow unjustified adjournments.
However, it is extremely difficult for a hearing chairperson to distinguish fairly between reasonably and unreasonably turning down the accused’s request for a witness, representative, adjournment or other requirement. The ability to make rulings in this regard that will stand up in court can only be acquired via substantial formal training and solid experience of the hearing chairperson.
In the case of Manyama vs Scaw Metals Chain Products (2011, 8 BALR 803) the arbitrator found that the chairperson of the disciplinary hearing had had prior knowledge of the incident and had therefore been biased The employer was ordered to pay the employee R58000 in compensation.
In Slabbert vs Ikhwezi Truck Tech (Pty) Ltd (2008, 1 BALR 75) the employee alleged that the chairperson of the disciplinary hearing had been biased because he had wanted the employee’s job for himself. However, the arbitrator found the dismissal to be fair because:
- The employee had provided no proof of the allegation that the chairperson wanted the employee’s job; and
- There was no evidence that the chairperson had behaved unfairly in conducting the disciplinary hearing or in arriving at his decision.
In order to ensure that employers do not lose cases due to chairperson bias or alleged bias at disciplinary hearings employers must ensure that:
- hearing chairpersons have no involvement in or knowledge of the case prior to the hearing
- presiding officers do not behave in any way during the hearing that could appear to be biased
- chairpersons are able to arrive at verdicts and penalty decisions in an unbiased manner
- hearing chairpersons have a solid understanding as to what constitutes apprehension of bias
- they contract in a labour law specialist to chair hearings where the employer has no internal official with the necessary qualifications and knowledge to carry out the task properly.
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