ATO crackdown: ‘May be fraud’
THE Australian Taxation Office has urged staff to anonymously dob in lazy colleagues amid concerns generous flexible working conditions are being abused.
In an internal memo sent to its 20,000 staff on December 4, the ATO warned that failure to accurately record working hours through the internal time management system could be fraud.
"Seen something suspicious?" the memo begins. "You might have seen it before. A colleague makes a habit of taking long lunches, or regularly leaves early, or spends the first hour at work eating breakfast and reading the paper ... or all of the above.
"And yet they are still able to take regular flex days. There could be explanations - perhaps they travel to work with their partner who has to start early, and they don't 'sign on' until after breakfast. Or maybe they have an agreed working arrangement that enables them to leave early, or partly work from home.
"Or perhaps your suspicions are correct and they're simply not recording their working hours appropriately.
"What do you do? Speak up, or mind your own business? Put up with the fact that it impacts your work, or raise it with your manager? And what if it is your manager?
"Maybe they just lose track of time, or are careless rather than acting deliberately. Maybe there are indeed reasonable explanations. Wouldn't you be getting them into trouble unnecessarily?
"We all have an obligation to assist in reporting fraud by referring any suspicion to either a manager or to Fraud Prevention and Internal Investigations. A failure to accurately record working hours, whether it's in TMS or through another process, can be fraud. It has resulted in sanctions under the Code of Conduct, a requirement to work off the hours inappropriately claimed, and a record of the matter being placed on the person's record.
"You can make an anonymous report in a variety of ways.
"When a report is made it will be looked into but it doesn't prejudge the outcome. If there are reasonable explanations, these will be identified. If there aren't, appropriate action will be taken. For privacy reasons you may not always know what the outcome is, but rest assured it will be looked into."
Jeff Lapidos, tax branch secretary of the Australian Services Union, said the proposal could undermine efforts by the ATO to develop high-performance teams by sowing distrust among colleagues.
"What this says is, 'If you dob someone in, they will have to prove to us they haven't done the wrong thing.' It is not a pleasant process having to prove you're innocent," Mr Lapidos said.
He said while such anonymous reports were made "from time to time", the proposal was "doomed to fail" because staff would not know whether their co-workers had a legitimate reason to be absent.
"We have flexible working hours in the tax office, so someone can legitimately take 15 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour to go off and do something in their own time - it could be to move the car, go to the chemist, join their mother for lunch - and there is no issue with it," he said.
"All they're required to do is properly record in the ATO's time management system that they took some time off, they don't have to say why. People's time sheets are private. What this does is encourage people to dob in anyone they see is absent from their desk even though they've got no grounds [to know if the absence is legitimate]."
Mr Lapidos said the ATO had not discussed the issue with the union, which could have made suggestions. "Probably to some extent there's a suspicion that some people are getting away with it," he said.
"When it becomes a common view that people get away with it, other people try it as well. If the Commissioner is actually concerned there is rorting going on, this is not the way to deal with it.
"We have good working conditions in the tax office, we worked hard over the last three years to maintain the length of our working day to seven hours and 21 minutes, and people get two 15-minute tea breaks.
"Taking those into account, people work less than a 35-hour week. It is very difficult work and people deserve these conditions, but people should not be abusing them. The union does not endorse any abuse of these conditions because we want to maintain them."
An ATO spokeswoman said the vast majority of staff "comply with our internal attendance policies and record their hours honestly and accurately". "We encourage all our staff to raise any workplace concerns with their manager," she said.
"This includes irregular work patterns of colleagues. There are also a variety of ways that employees can raise concerns with our internal fraud area. These concerns can be raised anonymously, should the employee choose to do so.
"We are proud to have a workforce which seeks to uphold the highest levels of integrity, which the community would expect.
"Integrity is everyone's business and we continually raise awareness of integrity matters with staff. The ATO has an enduring focus on delivering communication and education initiatives to ensure staff area aware of their obligations."