Requests from the Fair Work Ombudsman? Don't hide your head in the sand

When you are busy running a small business and receive a request for information about an employee’s entitlements from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), it’s very tempting to ignore it and hope it will go away. This is not a wise move and unfortunately, no matter how much you bury your head in the sand and ignore it, the request won’t disappear.

It is important to recognise that the FWO tries to achieve results largely through educating employers about their responsibilities. This alone does not seem to be enough though and with the Fair Work regime now having been in operation for six years, the FWO has decided to get tough with employers who fail to co-operate.

In a recent decision, a Court ordered a company and its managing director to produce documentation sought by the FWO, a request that they had either previously ignored or deliberately avoided. This is the first time that such an order has been granted but rest assured, it won’t be the last. The FWO, Natalie James, has made it clear that she will direct her team to take any action available to them to ensure employers comply with their obligations. That includes seeking orders punishing employers for contempt of Court if they fail to comply with the Court orders. In addition, the company and the managing director were fined $20,400 and $4,590 respectively. As if that wasn’t punishment enough, the judgment and the FWO’s press release also publicises their names, providing just the sort of publicity that a business doesn’t need.

Leaving it until the last minute to comply with Court orders also puts an employer at risk. A Melbourne business woman whose company ignored Compliance Notices to make good on the underpayment of wages, only paid up after the FWO issued Court proceedings. Sadly for her, it was a case of “too little, too late” in the Judge’s opinion and in addition to having to pay $11,000 in backdated wages, the woman (as opposed to her company) has also incurred a $9,000 fine.

In both of these cases, you could say it was a very expensive result for hiding your head in the sand like an Ostrich and a timely lesson for all other employers to take heed.

By Elizabeth Olsson, Senior Solicitor, Mellor Olsson

Practice Area: Employment

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