A DILBERT cartoon started the process which ended with the firing of an Australian public servant with 22 years employment behind him.
As a joke on 18 February, 2003, Ian Curr sent a Dilbert cartoon to his colleagues in the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) where he worked as a senior technical officer making taxation assessments. Mr. Curr had worked in the tax office for 16 years.
Mr. Curr read the Dilbert comic that morning over the breakfast table in the IT section of his morning paper, the Australian published by News Ltd.
The cartoon has a manager telling an underling to draft a letter: “I will tell you what to say, you go and write it, and I’ll sign it.”
Senior management disliked the Dilbert satire and Mr Curr’s dissemination of it by email.
“You sent an email to one or more ATO employees containing sarcastic and belittling commentary and a Dilbert cartoon graphic,” they wrote informing Mr Curr he had possibly breached subsection 13 (3) of the Public Service Act 1999.
The ‘sarcastic’ and ‘belittling’ commentary said taxation office management was about to issue operational instructions derived from the Dilbert cartoon.
An inquiry found Mr Curr guilty of not “treating everyone with respect and courtesy” in the course of his employment. He was demoted which effected a yearly salary drop of $AUS20,000.
Before the Dilbert ruling came down, Mr Curr was charged with more counts of disrespecting his colleagues.
One infringement sprang from his assisting in a dispute resolution concerning a young women who worked for the ATO on contract. Her colleagues referred to her as a ‘NOG’, a seemingly disrespectful acronym for a “non-on-going employee”.
Management circulated around the Human Resources department of the Taxation Office the following email about Mr Curr by one of his colleagues:
“In my amateur psychological opinion, there may be a condition of mild paranoia which I presume could be treated with mild medication or counselling...”
The industrial commissioner referred to this practice by management in his decision:
“It borders on the bizarre that Mr. King’s “amateur psychological opinion” (is) a failure to treat the applicant with courtesy and respect. The very thing the applicant was found to have done in his emails.“
The industrial commissioner did not find this bizarreness enough to distrust the evidence of management because of their lack of respect of Mr Curr.
Mr Curr has a long history as a social and trade union activist though he had never stood for political or trade union office. He offered his help to his much younger and inexperienced colleagues in their negotiations with management.
Also he had a history of technical differences with his managers. One of his bosses, an Order of Australia recipient, had made Mr Curr ‘excess’ when his middle managers realised that they would actually have to do something about audit recommendations by Mr Curr concerning outstanding tax owed by the family of a media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. Mr Curr was pulled off the audit when he queried the integrity of the media mogul’s stockbrokers.
In response, one ATO manager told Curr: “These are RESPECTABLE stockbrokers, you can’t just barge in the there and search their documents.”
Mr Curr had accused the stockbrokers of misusing legal professional privilege to cover up some dodgy share valuations that reduced tax debts of the Murdoch family.
Meanwhile, another of Mr Curr’s bosses had created ‘files of indecision‘ when confronted by a technical analysis by Mr Curr. That supervisor was too embarrassed to ask anyone for a second opinion for fear of being thought incompetent.
Eventually the Code of Conduct was used to great effect against Mr Curr. This was because there was no defence against colleagues saying they ‘felt’ disrespect from Mr Curr after a discussion with him.
His ‘disrespect’ of one manager arose when he requested to audio tape a conflict resolution meeting. The manager reported him after she walked out before the meeting formally began. A secondary charge was that Mr Curr was using his position to benefit another, an offense which could be grievous for someone working in the tax office. But the person Mr Curr was trying to benefit was not a tax dodger but an inexperienced colleague.
After the Dilbert decision, Mr Curr was found guilty of the new offences and sacked. The timing was most unfortunate because he lost a third of the pension benefits he would have accrued with one more year of service. In his preface to the first paperback edition of The Dilbert Principle (Harper Business, 1997), cartoonist Scott Adams lampoons the inadequacy of employees who lose pension entitlements.
“The theory is that if your boss intentionally fires you one day before your pension becomes vested, the real problem is you don’t like change.“
Using his life savings, Mr Curr appealed the decision but lost.
The industrial relations commissioner found Mr Curr’s hidden audio taping of a subsequent conflict resolution was telling. Queensland law has no prohibition against such surreptitious recording by anyone, but the commissioner thought:
“The failure of the applicant (Mr. Curr) to advise (the tax office representative) that he was taping the meeting is appalling. It is discourteous … The deceptive behaviour of the applicant is taken as demonstrative of his failure to respect open and honest disclosure. It reflects poorly on the applicant’s credit (honesty).”
Other appeal avenues are still open but beyond the means of the unemployed Mr Curr, a science graduate from the University of Queensland. Like many public servants of long standing, he has few easily transferable job skills. He was seeking work as a laboratory assistant re-enacting jobs he had thirty years ago. However he is now resigned to the fact that he is unemployable because he reserves the right to criticise the boss.
A suburban newspaper reported on his unsuccessful appeal for justice to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission but the reporter was declined a comment from the Australian Taxation Office.
Mr Curr contacted Dilbert cartoonist Adams who said the case created ‘fodder’ for a future cartoon. Adams has gone on record as saying that management has changed little since he first began to pen Dilbert and the cartoonist feels this is good for his job security. (Preface to The Dilbert Principle (Harper Business, 1997)
Bernie Dowling is a journalist in Pine Rivers, just outside the Queensland state capital of Brisbane.
Ian Curr, currently unemployed, a former long-standing employee of the Australian Taxation Office, has co-written a book with members of LeftPress Printing Society titled “After the Waterfront — the Workers Are Quiet” about the future of unions in Australia.
It is available online or by writing to LeftPress PO Box 5093 West End 4101 or email firstname.lastname@example.org