Employment law update – The scourge of misrepresenting qualifications

November 1st, 2023

In Lesedi Local Municipality v Mphele and Others [2023] 9 BLLR 939 (LC), the Labour Court (LC) held as follows: ‘We live in a world; where inauthenticity and fake credentials have become the norm, where quick wealth and instant gratification is valued more than integrity, where the disgusting trend of augmenting one’s qualifications and achievements have become fashionable. This rot must be resisted and exposed at all costs.’ The review application in this matter ultimately turned on this very issue.

The Lesedi Local Municipality (the Municipality) sought to appoint a chief financial officer (CFO). The requirements for the position were, among other things, compliance with the minimum competency levels prescribed in the Treasury Regulations and preferably a degree in accounting or finance. The employee completed an application, submitted his curriculum vitae, was interviewed, and was subsequently appointed as CFO of the Municipality.

Several years later, the Municipality conducted an investigation in which it was found that the employee had falsely claimed that he was an accountant and had misrepresented his qualifications and professional memberships in his application. Consequently, the Municipality instituted disciplinary action against the employee on the grounds of dishonesty, and the employee was found guilty and summarily dismissed. Disgruntled with his dismissal, the employee referred an unfair dismissal dispute to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

The material evidence led at the arbitration proceedings at the CCMA included as follows:

  • The employee had factually misrepresented –
  • having a BCom accounting degree (when in fact he had only obtained a BCom degree);
  • having an honours degree in Generally Recognised Accounting Practice (rather he had completed an accounting executive short course with an NQF 8 recognition level); and
  • being registered as an accounting officer with the Institute of Administration and Commerce.
  • After being unnecessarily evasive, the employee conceded that he had not obtained an accounting degree and that the information reflected in his application was not correct. The employee, however, claimed that the overstating of his qualifications was an error on his part and denied that it was dishonest as alleged by the Municipality.
  • While the Municipality conceded that the employee met the general requirements for the position of CFO, the employee was favourably considered, to the exclusion of other candidates, on the basis that he presented himself to be a BCom accounting graduate.

Against this background, the arbitrator found that the employee’s dismissal was substantively unfair as the employee had in fact met the general requirements for the position of CFO. The arbitrator ordered that the employee be reinstated with back pay of around R 2 million. Unhappy with the finding, the Municipality instituted a review application against the arbitrator’s award on the basis that the arbitrator’s decision was one a reasonable decision maker could not reach.

The LC noted that the test in review applications entails ensuring that the arbitrator identified the true issue in dispute and reached a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence presented. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the arbitrator had found that the employee satisfied the requirements of the position and was, therefore, eligible for appointment as CFO. There was no compelling evidence, on a balance of probabilities, that he had committed misconduct.

The court found that the conclusion arrived at by the arbitrator did not align with the evidence placed before him. The issue before the arbitrator was not whether the employee had satisfied the advertised requirements for the position but whether he had represented that he had certain degrees and professional memberships, which he did not have. This evidence remained largely uncontested and proved that the employee had been grossly dishonest.

The court was not persuaded that the employee had merely made an error when reflecting his qualifications and professional memberships. If this was so, as he had claimed, he would have admitted it at the earliest possible opportunity. He failed to do so and only admitted that he lacked the qualifications when trapped in cross-examination. He nevertheless retained the view that he had done nothing wrong.

Accordingly, the court found that the arbitrator had evidently failed to properly assess the evidence placed before him. Had he done so, he would have found that the employee misrepresented his qualifications and his professional standing. The arbitrator’s decision to reinstate the employee in these circumstances was unreasonable and constituted a decision a reasonable decision maker could not reach. The court further noted that the misrepresentation of qualifications has become a scourge in the employment landscape and can never be condoned. In this regard, the court held that:

‘The misrepresentation of qualifications is a pervasive and menacing evil that greedily devours and indelibly taints our employment landscape. It trivialises our institutions of learning, devalues the sanctity of honest educational pursuits and cheapens legitimate and hard-earned achievements. It can never be excused, rationalised, or condoned. It is sickening to the core and detestable in every possible respect. It is not only morally offensive, it is also vocationally revolting. Every attempt to uproot it must be applauded and rigorously pursued.’

Having had the benefit of a complete record, the court held that it would serve little purpose to have the matter remitted to the CCMA for a hearing afresh when the court was in a position to determine the matter finally. The court ordered that the arbitrator’s award be reviewed and set aside and substituted it with an order that the employee’s dismissal was both procedurally and substantively fair. There was no order as to costs.


Bad advice not a basis to set aside an agreement

In Ephraim Mogale Local Municipality v Hlongwane NO and Another [2023] 9 BLLR 898 (LC), the employee was employed by Ephraim Mogale Local Municipality (the Municipality) as municipal manager. The Local Government: Municipal Finance Management Act 56 of 2003 (the MFMA) imposes several responsibilities on municipal managers to ensure that effective and transparent systems of financial risk are maintained. In particular, the MFMA prohibits the Municipality from opening a bank account with a bank that is not registered in terms of the Banks Act 94 of 1990 and imposes a duty on the municipal manager to enforce compliance with this obligation.

During her employment, the employee had requested and approved the transfer of R 80 million in municipal funds from FNB to VBS Mutual Bank, a bank which was not registered in terms of the Banks Act. This resulted in the loss of the entire amount when VBS folded. As a result, the Municipality charged the employee with several counts of gross misconduct. The employee pleaded guilty to all charges and accepted that the misconduct was serious and warranted dismissal. Notwithstanding this, the presiding officer of the disciplinary hearing imposed a sanction of three months’ suspension without pay after finding that the Municipality had failed to prove that she was grossly negligent.

The Municipality filed an application to review and set aside the disciplinary outcome, but before the review application came before the court, the Municipality elected to enter into a settlement agreement with the employee. In terms of the settlement agreement, the employee would resign on signature of the agreement, and the Municipality would pay her a year’s salary (nearly R 1,3 million) in full and final settlement within 30 days of conclusion of the agreement. The Municipality, however, subsequently declined to pay the employee.

As a result, the employee approached the Labour Court (LC) to have the settlement agreement made an order of court. A month later, the Municipality filed an application to have the settlement agreement declared unlawful and set aside and, if so, for the court to determine the review application.

The LC noted that this was one of the many cases that had produced litigation over what had become known as ‘the Great Bank Heist’ resulting from the spectacular collapse of VBS. This was also a case where the applications before the court displayed unimaginable levels of incompetence and disregard of what is expected of municipal officers, who now approached the court to fix the consequences.

The court noted that the proper approach was to first consider the application to set aside the settlement agreement, which agreement had been approved by the Municipality’s Council. The purpose of settlement agreements is to put an end to litigation. The parties were bound by the signed agreement. The Municipality sought to resile from the agreement on the grounds that it was based on poor legal advice, which had resulted in a waste of taxpayers’ money. While this was true, the Municipality had displayed utter incompetence by not only accepting the poor advice, but also by acting on it. The fact that the Municipality realised late that it was ill-advised by its legal representatives or that after signing the agreement, experienced some sense of ‘buyer’s remorse’, did not render the agreement unlawful.

The Municipality further submitted that the settlement agreement was unlawful on the basis that it was contrary to good governance and accountability and argued in its heads of argument that it was contrary to public policy. The fact that the agreement was contrary to good governance again did not render the agreement unlawful.

In the court’s view, the proper course would have been to approach the court to set aside the Council resolution in terms of which the settlement agreement was approved. The court, accordingly, held that the agreement could not be set aside in the circumstances.

Turning to the employee’s application to have the agreement made an order of court, the court noted that the Municipality had opposed the application on the basis that the payments to VBS were unlawful, that to pay the employee an exorbitant amount of money would reward her at the expense of the public purse and that the enforcement of the agreement would perpetuate the unlawfulness.

The court noted that it had a discretion to make any settlement agreement an order of court, and in exercising that discretion, the relevant facts and circumstances must be considered, such as are necessary to satisfy the demands of law and fairness. The court is not merely a rubber stamp. The court has a duty to ensure that enforcement is equitable and in the public interest, especially where the legitimacy of the agreement is challenged.

In the court’s view, it would have been contrary to public policy to make the agreement an order of court as the payment of one year’s salary to the employee, in circumstances where she acted unlawfully, would offend public policy. Enforcing the settlement agreement would constitute wasteful and irregular expenditure on the part of the Municipality and would certainly send the wrong message. Accordingly, the court declined to make the settlement agreement an order of court.

As to the Municipality’s application to review the disciplinary proceedings, the court held that because of the settlement agreement, which agreement could not be set aside, the dispute had been fully and finally settled. Both the Municipality’s and the employee’s applications were accordingly dismissed.

Nadine Mather BA LLB (cum laude) (Rhodes) is a legal practitioner at Bowmans in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (Nov) DR 34.