If an employee fails to return, can the employer terminate his employment contract without notice? What are the rules regarding the execution of the employer’s instructions in the case of an excused absence of the employee?
In light of the Polish Supreme Court’s February 24, 2022 order II PSK 309/21, the above issues seem to have finally been unequivocally resolved. Let’s take a look at legal and labor issues that, according to the Polish Supreme Court, may have a significant impact on relations between employers and employees.
Requesting the return of a company car
In the ruling in question, the employee was employed as a sales manager under a fixed-term employment contract. The parties to the employment relationship signed a document entrusting the employee with the employer’s property in the form of a company car.
According to this document, the employee was required to return the company car only in the event of:
- change of job position or
- termination of the employment relationship.
During the employment relationship, the employee went on sick leave. At that time, the employer demanded the return of the previously entrusted company car by:
- sending a request to the employee to indicate the place of release of the company car;
- sending a letter to the employee revoking the authorization to use a company car and at the same time calling for the release of the company car.
The employee disregarded the request to return the company car, which resulted in the employer’s termination of the employment contract without notice for grave breach of basic labor duties causing loss of confidence in the employee, and consisting of disregarding and unjustifiably failing to carry out the employer’s business order.
In response, the employee filed a lawsuit in court seeking damages for wrongful termination.
Could an employer demand the return of a company car during an employee’s excused absence?
In the opinion of the Polish District Court, in the case under consideration, he can, and if only for the reason that the entrusted car was owned by the employer at the time, and therefore the employer-owner of the car can demand its return at any time.
The Polish District Court’s verdict was appealed by the employee, pointing to the need for the Polish Supreme Court to clarify legal issues such as:
- does an employee have to follow the employer’s instructions during an excused absence from work due to illness?
- under what conditions can the failure to carry out such an order be considered a case of grave breach of basic labor obligations, resulting in the employer’s termination of the employment contract?
Refusal to return as a reason justifying termination of employment contract
In this regard, the Polish Supreme Court pointed to Article 124 of the polish Labor Code, from which it follows that the employee receives property from the employer with the obligation to return or account for it, and the employer has the full right to demand the return of the entrusted property, regardless of the stage of the employment relationship.
An employee, receiving the employer’s property, does not become its owner; he merely uses it in the performance of his duties. According to the polish Labor Code, the employer may demand the return of this property at any time.
It is important that the employer, wishing to exercise the right to return property, inform the employee early enough. This communication should include precise information on where and when the employee is to return the property entrusted to him.
In light of these considerations, the Polish Supreme Court pointed out that an employer has the right to demand the return of property from an employee, even when the employee is on sick leave.
The key element is to maintain the principle of loyalty and protect the interests of the employer. Failure to obey the employer’s order to return the company car constitutes a grave breach of employee duties, primarily in the form of a breach of the duty to protect the employer’s property. Violation of the principle of loyalty of the employee to the employer, which means that the employee refrains from actions aimed at causing harm to the employer or causing a mere threat to the employer’s interests, may cause the employer to lose confidence in the employee and constitute grounds for termination of employment.
Analysis of the above issues can provide valuable information on the boundaries and responsibilities of the parties during the employment relationship.
In the perspective of the polish Labor Code, the analysis of cases such as the one described above sheds light on the essence of responsible management of property entrusted to an employee. Understanding the rules regarding the return of entrusted property is crucial to maintaining a balance between the rights of the employer and the employee.
It seems that the dispute over whether an employee can be required to return a company car to the employer during sick leave is losing its relevance, although we should keep in mind that we still have to wait for a well-established line of jurisprudence on this topic.
Paula Staszak-Urbańska, Trainee attorney-at-law (PL)