By Lize Pieters
I stole money from the petty cash, but it was a very small amount. Can I be dismissed?
Dishonesty takes on different forms in the labour law context, including theft and fraud. However, theft is regarded by the courts as one of the most serious violations.
In Central News Agency (Pty) Ltd v CCAWUSA & another (1991) 12 ILJ 340 (LAC), the Labour Appeals Court overruled a verdict of the Industrial Court which stated that the employee had been dismissed unfairly.
On 7 January 1989, the employee stole goods to the value of R50 from the employer. The employee was found guilty of theft in the Magistrate’s Court, after which the employer notified the employee of a disciplinary hearing. During this hearing, the chairman concluded that the employee was indeed guilty and that the employee should be dismissed.
With this ruling, the court confirmed that theft generally justifies dismissal, even for a first offender and that every contract silently implies that employees shall not steal from the employer.
“Appellant terminated its contractual relationship with second respondent as it was entitled to do because of the breach by second respondent of a basic tacit term of the contract of employment, i.e. that the employee would not steal from the employer and that the employee would not breach the position of trust in which he had been placed by being allowed into appellant’s store room. In my view it is axiomatic to the relationship between employer and employee that the employer should be entitled to rely upon the employee not to steal from the employer. This trust which the employer places in the employee is basic to and forms the substratum of the relationship between them. A breach of this duty goes to the root of the contract of employment and of the relationship between employer and employee.”
The Court further confirmed that the value of the stolen goods is irrelevant:
“… an employer unquestionably is entitled to expect from his employees that they would not steal from him and if an employee does steal from the employer that is such a breach of the relationship and of the contract between them and such a gross and criminal dereliction of duty that dismissal undoubtedly would be justified and fair. For the purposes of this judgment it is not necessary to attempt to draw a line between theft and so-called ‘trivial pilfering’, if there is a difference, nor do I intend to discuss the consequences of so-called ‘trivial pilfering’.”
The employee who stole goods to the value of R50 was dismissed and by that ruling, the court proved that the value of stolen goods is irrelevant.
The following can be derived regarding theft: Theft is regarded as a very serious offence; dismissal is fair, even for first offenders and regardless the value of the stolen goods, the service period of the employee, previous warnings, and regardless whether the employee returned the goods.