It is established law that an employee can be dismissed for misrepresenting his or her qualifications to the employer. But what happens to the remuneration paid to the employee during the time he was employed? This question was raised in the recent High Court judgment of Umgeni Water v Naidoo.
Umgeni Water (the employer) ran a graduate employment programme that it had implemented to recruit graduates in order to train, and hopefully retain once they successfully completed the programme. Applicants were required to hold, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
Naidoo (the employee) applied to join the programme and submitted a BSc degree certificate in Engineering, together with his academic record from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. After completing the programme he was appointed and worked for the employer for eight years until he resigned.
When the employee was initially appointed, it was not common practice for the employer to verify qualifications. However, several years later it hired a private company to do so and when the employee applied for another position within the company the verification report stated that he did not have a degree.
The employer initially felt that there was some error and gave the employee several opportunities to show that he had a qualification, but he failed to do so.
In addition to instituting disciplinary proceedings against the employee for misrepresentation of his qualifications, the employer instituted civil action on the basis that the employee’s conduct had been fraudulent and sought repayment of the remuneration paid to the employee, being R2 203 565.04. The employer argued that had it not been for the employee’s misrepresentation and fraudulent conduct it would not have employed him.
After hearing evidence, the court concluded that the degree and academic records produced by the employee as evidence were forged and found accordingly that the employee had failed to prove that he had the required degree. The court further found that the employee misrepresented the true state of his qualifications to secure employment, which was fraudulent. The court thus held that because the fraud was proven, the employer became entitled to be repaid the amount paid to the employee.
Punitive costs were awarded on an attorney and client scale (being a higher scale) against the employee as the court, in exercising its discretion, considered that the employee was guilty of reprehensible conduct and showed no remorse. The employer was also allowed to execute the judgment amount against the employee’s provident fund benefits.
This case demonstrates that an employee who misrepresents their qualifications can not only find themselves being fired but also repaying the employer the remuneration that they received while employed.
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