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Home Wrong behaviour Discipline Can an employee refuse to perform duties outside his job description?

Can an employee refuse to perform duties outside his job description?

Jan du Toit

General job descriptions

On a fairly regular basis, inquiries are received from the employers about if an employee is forced to carry out tasks or duties which are not included in his job description. Employers find that when issuing instruction to an employee, it is met with the retort “it is not in my job description”.

Should job descriptions then be made more general?

This question was addressed in a private arbitration in East London in the matter of SATAWU / Auto Carriers (East London branch) [2—7] 5 BALR 493 9P.

The respondent was engaged in the business of transporting new motor vehicles from a motor vehicle manufacturing plant to motor dealerships. The transportation was done using specially constructed double-decker carrier vehicles on which the new motor cars were parked and secured. Carrying perhaps 10 or more motor cars, these vehicles were driven by carrier drivers from the factory to the dealership. In other cases, the new motor cars were driven on their own wheels to the dealership by convoy drivers.

The dispute arose where there were no carriers to be driven, and the carrier drivers were asked to act as convoy drivers. The carrier drivers refused and were supported by Satawu in this refusal who contended that the carrier driver’s duties were restricted to loading and driving the carrier rigs.

The respondent maintained that:

  • The instruction (to act as convoy drivers) was reasonable and lawful, and
  • The carrier drivers had no right to refuse because “acting as a carrier driver” was not stated in the job description.

An arbitrator was called in to perform damage control

The arbitrator was asked to decide if it was reasonable to instruct carrier drivers to perform convoy work when carriers were not available. He said that an employer may instruct an employee to perform tasks that allegedly fall outside of his job description depending on:

  • The terms and/or conditions of the employee's contract,
  • The nature of the task to be performed,
  • The circumstances in which the instruction is given, and
  • The employer's operational requirements.

The union relied on a document which listed the duties and tasks of the carrier driver and acting as a convoy driver was not listed among these tasks.

The respondent stated that this list of duties was compiled during a job grading exercise and was intended as a guide to determine appropriate wage rates for each job description. It was not intended to be a comprehensive and exhaustive job description.

The arbitrator accepted the respondent’s version, stating that:

  • The document lacked contractual force, and
  • In the bundle of documents submitted, he found evidence that in the past carrier drivers had customarily been requested to perform convoy work, and that they had, in fact, done so.

The arbitrator pointed out that in A Mauchie (Pty) Ltd t/a Precision Tools v NUMSA & others (1995) 16 ILJ 1 (LAC), the Labour Appeal Court found that “employees do not have a vested the right to preserve their working obligations completely unchanged from the moment they are appointed”.

The arbitrator then referred to the employee handbook, issued by the employer to all employees, which states that:

  • “Employees shall obey the legitimate instruction of the supervision of any employee in authority over them”, and
  • “[That] should a grievance be felt with regard to the instruction, representation may be made to supervision or higher authority, but in the first instance the instruction shall be obeyed”.

 It is clear that:

  • Employees did have a very specific procedure to follow when they were approached to perform tasks outside their job description, and
  • When they were approached to perform a task outside the norm no excuse could be accepted in the instance of a blank refusal to carry out the instruction.

The arbitrator could not find any evidence to show that the instruction was unreasonable in any way.

Employers need to ensure that:

  • A job description states specifically that the list of tasks or duties and responsibilities is not exhaustive, and
  • The employer is entitled to instruct the employee, at any time, to carry out additional duties or responsibilities, which fall reasonably within the ambit of the job description, or in accordance with operational requirements.