The Fair Work Commission has said an employee is entitled to hold personal views and beliefs at odds with his employer after a domestic violence case manager allegedly breached company policy for sharing articles by a critic of feminism from The Australian.
Relationships Australia in Western Australia (RAWA) confronted its men’s counsellor, Robert Tiller, because he appeared to believe domestic violence was not caused by the “gender power imbalance” and had linked to articles by columnist Bettina Arndt.
But Commissioner Bruce Williams said the counsellor’s views had not affected his work and the agency was on “precarious” ground if it had dismissed him.
“Whilst Mr Tiller is obliged to carry out his duties in accordance with the Family and Domestic Violence Policy and Procedures his Employment Agreement does not, on its terms, have the effect of denying him the freedom to hold personal views and beliefs that are at odds with RAWA’s policies,” he said.
However, the commissioner ultimately rejected Mr Tiller’s unfair dismissal claim because he found he had resigned, and was not fired, in response to the agency confronting him over his views.
Views ‘not only wrong but dangerous’
Mr Tiller had worked for eight years at RAWA and was a member of The Men’s Focus Group, a separate group where men working in social services met and often debated new research and articles.
Management became aware Mr Tiller had sent emails to the group from his work address with links to Ms Arndt’s articles where he “appeared” to be endorsing the view that domestic violence was not primarily caused by men and was gender neutral.
RAWA chief executive Terri Reilly said the emails were a “complete breach” of the agency’s policy on domestic violence and “entirely inconsistent” with its philosophy.
She told the commission views that domestic violence was not gender based are “not only wrong but dangerous”.
At its worst, she said “these views propose that domestic violence is a conspiracy promoted by feminists“.
When Ms Reilly confronted Mr Tiller about the emails, he defended linking to Ms Arndt’s article as a sharing of ideas and said it was never intended as a political statement.
He claimed Ms Reilly then became agitated and moved to the edge of her seat to tell him in a sharp tone “Bettina Arndt is right wing” and challenged her credibility as a journalist.
When Mr Tiller replied that her article had been published in The Australian, Ms Reilly allegedly rolled her eyes.
Mr Tiller added that Ms Arndt was a clinical psychologist and that some of her findings matched his observations that the male partner can often experience different forms of abuse and violence from his female partner.
Ms Reilly then confronted Mr Tiller over two cartoons he had posted on his private Facebook account that she claimed were “evidence of unconscious bias”, implying he was sexist.
Mr Tiller strongly disagreed and said a couple of Facebook jokes did not interfere with his ability to do good work.
Mr Tiller claimed Ms Reilly then advised him to resign so he would not have a dismissal on his record. Mr Tiller said he was stunned and didn’t respond and later told his partner “I think I just got fired”.
In the commission, Ms Reilly denied this account and said Mr Tiller had responded “I guess I’ll resign” when she asked “where to from here”.
Commissioner Williams considered that RAWA’s domestic violence policy described its philosophy as “historically framed by a feminist analysis of gendered power relations”.
But he said how that philosophy applied to the minority of RAWA’s cases, such as women’s violence against men or between same-sex couples, was uncertain and “problematic”.
While Mr Tiller was obliged to abide by those policies, the commissioner said they were “not entirely satisfactory given the internal inconsistencies and deficiencies”.
“Whatever views and beliefs Mr Tiller did hold I find there is no evidence he had not been carrying out his duties in accordance with RAWA’s policies.”
He found Mr Tiller had resigned on his own accord but said he would have ruled he had been unfairly dismissed if the agency had fired him.
He said the CEO’s intense 90 minute meeting confronting Mr Tiller over the allegations was “highly prejudicial” and “gave every appearance of having prejudged the matter”.
Further, he found management was influenced by Mr Tiller’s Facebook posts which they found personally offensive.
“Whilst individuals will react differently to attempts at humour, judged objectively these Facebook posts and cartoons were innocuous,” the commissioner said.