Background checks can avoid anguish later

PETER CULLEN
Last updated 05:00 24/12/2013

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OPINION: Readers will have followed with sadness the passing of Nelson Mandela. Like many, I was moved by the memorial service, which was attended by numerous world leaders and dignitaries. Countless tributes have followed.

A couple of things stood out at the service, but one in particular has been making headlines over the last couple of weeks.

Thamsanqa Jantjie was engaged as an interpreter at the memorial service. He was required to stand next to the speakers and translate their speeches into sign language.

Jantjie was, however, not up to the job. In the days following the memorial service, there has been outrage in the deaf community with many claiming that Jantjie's signs amounted to nothing more than gibberish. A number of experts have also reviewed Jantjie's work and concluded that many of his translations did not make sense.

When questioned, Jantjie has insisted that he is a trained interpreter. This seems doubtful, however, as his work in the past has been similarly criticised, most recently at an event last year attended by South African President Jacob Zuma.

Jantjie has claimed that during the memorial, he began seeing hallucinations of angels but that he tried not to panic because of the armed policeman standing nearby.

It seems that Jantjie has a history of mental illness. He has acknowledged that he was once hospitalised in a mental health facility for more than 18 months and that he has been violent in the past.

The South African Government has acknowledged that there was a mistake in hiring Jantjie. However, it has struggled to explain how it came to hire Jantjie and has been unable to track down the company which engaged him.

Employers can reasonably expect that employees will be capable of performing the role they are hired for.

If Jantjie was in New Zealand, his employer would likely be within its rights to dismiss him. However, as shown in a recent case concerning a purported refrigerator engineer, the employer would still need to follow a fair process.

Friedriech Gostmann came to New Zealand from South Africa to work for Independent Refrigeration and Electrical in Whakatane.

When Gostmann was interviewed for the role in early 2012, he claimed that he was a refrigeration engineer with 15 years' experience in South Africa. However, a series of costly and serious errors quickly put doubt in the employer's mind about whether Gostmann was as qualified as he claimed he was.

It quickly became apparent that Gostmann could not perform basic duties and was not familiar with core tasks that engineers anywhere in the world would know.

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On one occasion, Gostmann told an apprentice that cables had been isolated when in fact they had not. As a result, the cables short-circuited when the apprentice attempted to move them, nearly electrocuting him.

Things came to a head and Gostmann was asked to choose between resigning and being dismissed. He elected not to resign so his employment ended the same day.

Following Gostmann's dismissal, the employer made a number of inquiries with his former employers in South Africa. It was told that Gostmann was merely a handyman. Gostmann's only qualification in the industry it turned out was two 10-day courses that he completed so that he could secure immigration papers.

It also emerged that Gostmann had written his own reference and asked an employee who had no actual knowledge of Gostmann's work to sign it.

Gostmann brought a claim for unjustified dismissal in the Employment Relations Authority. He also sought reinstatement to his old job.

The authority declined to reinstate Gostmann on the basis that he was not capable of performing the job for which he was employed unsupervised. It did, however, find Gostmann had been unjustifiably dismissed.

The authority observed that the employer did not attempt to improve Gostmann's poor workmanship and did not warn him that his continued poor performance could lead to his dismissal. The authority also noted that the employer did not carry out thorough reference checks prior to employing Gostmann.

The stories of Jantjie and Gostmann are cautionary tales for employers about the possible consequences of not properly investigating a potential employee's qualifications.

There are options available for employers who discover that an employee is not what he or she seems. However, it is better and much safer to get it right at the outset.

Peter Cullen is a partner at Cullen - the Employment Law Firm, and may be contacted at peter@cullenlaw.co.nz

- BusinessDay

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