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Staff who drop the ball risk being sent off

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Sports stars and their coaches at the highest level are international celebrities. So much of what they do ends up on the front pages of the world's media.

Coaches are employed on contracts that can be event based or results driven. Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, for example, is employed until the end of the Rugby World Cup. Whether his employment continues may well depend on how the team performs at rugby's showcase event.

A successful coach may get a knighthood - look at Sir Graham Henry and Sir Alex Ferguson, whereas those who don't perform will often lose their positions and be forced to go quietly.

However, there are some who don't.

In recent weeks, Australian sport has seen two of its leading coaches lose their job - first Australian Cricket coach Mickey Arthur, and, more recently, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans.

Arthur was dismissed from his position following a disastrous showing by his team at the recent Champions Trophy in England. Australia has undoubtedly been the pre-eminent cricketing power over the last decade and a half. However, despite Arthur's best efforts, a run of lean results in recent years was capped off when Australia crashed out of the recent tournament.

Deans, who has coached the Wallabies since 2008, has struggled to achieve regular success. Overall he has a 58 per cent winning record, but more damning is his poor record against the All Blacks: out of 18 games played, the Wallabies won just three with Deans in charge.

Deans' fate was sealed when the Wallabies lost the final match of the recent series against the British and Irish Lions. This gave the Lions their first series win against any team since 1997. Despite Deans having six months left on his contract, he was shown the door.

Deans, it seems, has gone without much public fuss - but who knows what any handshake might have cost? Arthur, on the other hand, has not gone quietly, instead filing a claim for A$4 million (NZ$4.57m) in Australia's Fair Work Commission.

Arthur, who is from South Africa, claimed that Cricket Australia, his employer, discriminated against him because of his heritage. He also said that he was made a scapegoat for a number of off-field incidents involving his former players and that considerable damage has been done to his reputation.

The dispute has now been resolved, after a confidential settlement between Arthur and Cricket Australia was reached.

Coaches, or managers, are employees and their performance can be subject to review by their employer. If an employee's performance is found to be wanting, and there is a failure to remedy the performance in issue, then an employer may be justified in taking disciplinary action or even dismissing the employee.

This is clearly demonstrated in an ongoing dispute between Google and a former senior manager, Rachel Bethold.

Bethold was, until her dismissal, responsible for nearly 90 per cent of Google's managers based in Ireland - a position of considerable seniority. It seems, however, that in the eyes of her employer, she was not doing a particularly good job.

In a letter, Google raised a number of concerns with Bethold, namely that she was not sufficiently pro-active, she failed to show strategic initiative and that she lacked certain communication skills. Google took the view that Bethold's shortcomings were having an adverse effect on the performance of the wider team she managed.

Bethold was put on a performance expectation programme and clear improvement targets were set out. However, her failure to improve led Google to terminate her employment.

Bethold is now taking a claim for unfair dismissal against her former employer. A decision is expected early next year.

Were Bethold's case to be heard in New Zealand, Google's actions may well be upheld. So long as Google properly raised its concerns with Bethold, gave her a reasonable opportunity to improve and that improvement did not occur, it should be within its rights to dismiss her.

The key is always to ensure the employee is well aware of any concerns their employer has about their performance. Whether Cricket Australia and the Australian Rugby Union were sufficiently clear about their concerns with Arthur and Deans is not apparent. However, in a sporting context, coaches will often be judged on the results of their team, so the performance issues that lead to a dismissal or resignation will usually be obvious.

The New Zealand Rugby Union, our largest governing sporting body, has few acrimonious and public disputes with players or coaches. This reflects well on its leadership.

Deans has gone quietly and Arthur has just resolved his issues with Cricket Australia. Usually there will be a negotiated exit which is in everyone's interests, not least of all the sport and its future. However, these recent sagas are a timely reminder that employees who do not meet the standards expected by their employer risk being sent to the sidelines.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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