Imagine that you own an optometry practice located in a busy shopping mall. A fellow tenant of the mall accuses your employee of theft, and the management of the mall bans your employee from ever setting foot in the mall again. She can no longer enter your office at the mall without being ejected by mall security.
Obviously, in these circumstances, you are relieved from the duty to employ the employee concerned, and you simply terminate her contract – right? Wrong.
Our case law indicates that cases such as these – known as “supervening impossibility of performance” cases – must be treated as cases of incapacity. Cases of incapacity include instances where an employee becomes sick or injured, and therefore unable to perform their work, in whole or in part, and on a temporary or permanent basis.
The law sets out duties with which the employer must comply in such cases. In essence, the law expects the employer to accommodate and assist an employee who is incapacitated. The extent to which this must be done depends on the facts of each case. Where the incapacity arose in the course of the employee’s employment – for example a shop assistant falls off a ladder while packing goods on shop shelves, and injures herself – more is expected from the employer. More is also expected from a large employer who has “deep pockets” and can better afford to be generous.
In some cases, the period for which the employee cannot work is short, and the employer can do without the employee or get by through hiring a temporary replacement.
If, in the circumstances, the employee will be prevented from working for a period which is unreasonably long, the employer cannot simply dismiss and replace the employee, but must first consider all options short of dismissal. This might include, in the case of the optometrist’s employee, transferring her to another branch located outside of the mall from which she was banned. It might include adapting the employee’s work circumstances – for example, providing seating to an employee who would normally be required to work standing – or adapting the employee’s duties to accommodate her incapacity. It might also involve providing the employee with alternative work if this is available – and as a last resort before dismissal a demotion might be justified.
It may well be that, having investigated all of these options together with the employee, there is no alternative to dismissal. Then the employer can rest assured that he or she has treated the employee fairly and that the resultant dismissal will be both substantively and procedurally fair. In the absence of taking the trouble to investigate these options, however, any dismissal is likely to be both substantively and procedurally unfair, and ultimately prejudicial to both parties.