Face the consequences!

Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash

By Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini (Editor: SJ Crossan)

Introduction

Privacy is a human right and both the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, implemented provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8) directly into national. The employment contract, consequently, is not in any way exempt from human rights issues (see the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08). The European Union (EU) has also had a major influence on the development of privacy laws e.g. General Data Protection Regulations.

Privacy has become a major issue in recent years, particularly due to the rise of social media use. The increasing use of IT systems and the internet by organisations and their employees are key factors in the expansion of laws regarding privacy. In Bărbulescu, the employer had violated the employee’s rights to privacy in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention in the way that it had monitored the company’s email system. Privacy in the work-place is a major issue for both employers and employees. Some of the most important areas of law that govern privacy are to be found in the areas of human rights, data protection, and freedom of information.

It is very important to establish from the outset that employees do not have an absolute right to privacy and there may be situations within and outwith the work-place where the employer has a legitimate interest in the activities of their employees – especially if such behaviour could amount to gross misconduct.

Gross misconduct

Gross misconduct relates to serious behaviour on the part of the employee that is deemed so bad that it destroys any relationship or trust between the employer and the employee. Gross misconduct warrants instant dismissal without any notice or pay.

Section 94 of the Employments Rights Act 1996 states that an employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed.

Section 95 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that an employment contract can be terminated by means of the company through purpose of the employee’s conduct. Such a dismissal or termination of contract should be viewed as a fair dismissal (Section 98: ERA 1996).

Acts or omissions by the employee which would be classified as misconduct, such as theft, alcohol or drug use, poor discipline, continually missing work without justification or poor performance are all potential exceptions to this right.

Sexting

Matt Simpson former officer in the Cumbria police force is one of many who have been caught out due to things such as inappropriate text messages. In 2020, PC Simpson was dismissed from the force after he was found to be having a secret, sexual relationship while on duty. It first came to light after the new partner of the female, with whom Simpson was involved, found text messages that had been sent to her. The new partner of Simpson’s lover then went to the police authorities with this information to make a formal complaint.

A hearing was held to establish if PC Simpson was guilty of any wrongdoing. The panel found that this was a dereliction of Simpson’s duties and he was guilty of gross misconduct – not only due to having this relationship during the time when he was meant to be working but also due to him using confidential police system to uncover information about the women purely because he was “curious”. As well as this Mr Simpson also visited the female around 20 times when on shift and had vital police equipment with him while visiting such as a body camera and a taser device. The fact that this whole affair had come to light via Simpson’s private text messages was neither here nor there: this was an aspect of Simpson’s private life in which his employers had a legitimate interest and he had been carrying out his romantic activities during his employment.

A link to the story on the BBC website can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-51136711

In PC Simpson’s case, he clearly performed his duties inadequately and was guilty of very poor discipline. He was aware of the consequences of his actions. By involving himself with the female, he was making himself unavailable at times such as an emergency. Dereliction of duty is defined as the failure to fulfil one’s obligations. Here, PC Simpson clearly failed to do his job in a proper and professional manner and he could have been potentially negligent should an emergency have risen.

A further example of an employee committing acts of misconduct occurred in Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd [2017] EWCA Civ 22. Mr Adesokan was hired by Sainsbury’s as a Regional Operation Manager when he was in charge of ‘Talkback Procedure’, a key company policy which involved all members of staff giving information in confidence about their working environment and relationships with other colleagues. Mr Adesokan discovered that his HR manager had tried to manipulate the Talkback scores within his region by sending an email to five store managers telling them to seek feedback only from their most enthusiastic colleagues. Mr Adesokan asked the HR manager to “clarify what he meant with the store managers”, but the HR manager never responded. Mr Adesokan failed to follow this matter up and he was later dismissed by his employer for not taking action to confront the HR manager’s deliberate “manipulation” of the survey data.

A subsequent investigation into the matter led to Mr Adesokan’s eventual summary dismissal for “gross negligence on his part which is equivalent to gross misconduct”. Mr Adesokan brought a claim for breach of contract with regard to his notice period. The English High Court found that although he was not dishonest, his failure to take active steps to remedy the situation had damaged Sainsbury’s trust and confidence in him, which was sufficient to warrant the sanction imposed. The English Court of Appeal subsequently affirmed the decision of the High Court.

The Adekosan case was remarkably similar to that of PC Simpson where no other option was available to the employer as there was a complete loss of trust.

Activities outwith working hours

What individuals do with their own time is largely their choice (as long as they stay on the right side of the law). It is exceedingly difficult, however, for many people to do much these days without using social media or a mobile phone. Activities which used to be very much private are, consequently, at a much greater risk of public exposure in the virtual world in which we find ourselves living in 2020.

Employees can carry out many activities in private that may get them in trouble with their employers and have serious consequences for them. This might include, for instance, acts of gross misconduct committed in private which result in reputational damage to the employer. Consequently, the employer may have no alternative but to contemplate dismissal of the employee.

There is a lot of case law with regard to employees being dismissed from situations that have happened outside the workplace, an example would be the well-known case of X v Y [2004] EWCA Civ 662.

The facts of the case are as follows:

A charity employee who worked with young offenders committed an indecent act with another male in a public toilet at a motorway service station. He was put on the Sex Offenders’ Register as a result of receiving a police caution. The worker had not been straightforward with the Police when they asked questions about his job and, compounding this, he failed to inform his employer about the situation. Later, his employer decided to terminate his contract and the dismissal was once deemed to be fair. The reputational harm which the employer suffered due to the fact of the employee’s failure to be completely honest about what had happened was an enormous element of the decision to dismiss.

The English Court of Appeal was firmly of the view that the employee’S argument that he had a right to privacy (on grounds of his sexual orientation) in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was not applicable here as the indecent act was not of a personal nature due to the fact it had been carried out in a public toilet.

Doctor Beck

In some cases, however, it may be problematic to dismiss the ‘offending’ employee who may be involved in activities which come under the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010 e.g. philosophical beliefs or freedom of speech laws in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.

One example of this was reported by The Independent regarding Dr Gunnar Beck, a German national and a candidate for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far right political party.

Dr Beck was employed at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), (part of the University of London) as a law lecturer. A number of his students and colleagues were enraged after discovering that he was an AfD candidate for a German seat in the European Parliamentary Elections in 2019.

Students and fellow lecturers organised protests arguing that Dr Beck should be fired from his position and for his employer to justify its part “in facilitating his far-right politics”. His colleagues from the School of Law stated that they vehemently oppose the AfD and its policies and wished to dissociate themselves completely from the people who support and advocate the Party.

The members of AfD are well-known for making provocative remarks concerning the actions taken by the Nazis. They targeted climate change activist, Greta Thunberg as part of their attempts to deny climate change.

Employees at the University of London went on to say that they were making their views public since they “recognise the importance of not being complicit in the normalisation of reactionary, right-wing populism.” A declaration by the students’ union at the university asked why Beck chose to work at a university “who hold and support so many of the identities he wants to see diminished”.

The Acting General Secretary of the University and College Union, Paul Cottrell stated that:

The AfD is an extreme right-wing, racist, anti-immigration party that has no place on UK campuses. We are shocked that a member of academic staff from SOAS could be involved with a party like this which stands for policies utterly incompatible with the values of diversity, tolerance and internationalism at the very heart of SOAS as an institution.

Dr Beck informed The Independent that his reason for supporting the AfD was because “there is no other Eurosceptic conservative party in Germany”.

He also went on to say that the AfD are “not a Nazi nor a fascist party.” Dr Beck stated that he was an advocate for freedom of speech and would defend anyone’s rights to it and any claims of him being a white supremacist, Islamophobe or fascist were outrageous.

Subsequently, Dr Beck was elected as 1 of 10 German MEPs from the AfD Party, but he was not dismissed from his position at the university.

A representative of SOAS stated:

We find the policies of the AfD on a range of matters to be abhorrent. They conflict with the fundamental values we hold as an institution. We recognise the anxiety caused to staff and students as a result of this situation.”

However, they added that: 

As an academic institution, we are committed to the rights of academic freedom of speech within the law, despite the painful choices to which it gives rise. We encourage members of our community to tackle these issues through robust debate.

This story regarding Dr Beck’s private affairs is an excellent illustration of employers not being able to fire an employee for acts committed in private due to protected characteristics (i.e. political beliefs) of the Equality Act 2010.

Both Dr Beck and the University of London have undoubtedly suffered reputational damage. Beck has suffered reputational damage in the eyes of his fellow lecturers and students because he is a member of AfD; and the university has suffered reputational damage for employing him in the first instance and subsequently for not dismissing him after the revelation about his political activities came to light.

That said, the University of London was in something of a difficult position because Dr Beck would probably have launched a legal challenge in terms of the Equality Act 2010. He would doubtless have protested that his political activities were a protected characteristic (philosophical beliefs). It would then have been up to an Employment Tribunal and, potentially, the higher courts to determine this issue. There was also the possibility that the university would have been accused of suppressing the right to freedom of speech.

A link to the story in The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.180519/data/8919156/index.html

Using social media outside work

As previously discussed, reputational damage is a big concern for organisations. Employers have also had valid fears about risks to their’ reputation as a result of work place misconduct that becomes widely publicised in e.g. the media. These fears have been increased with the surge in social media use today.

Employees are now far more likely to be found behaving in questionable ways or making offensive remarks online, which can attract a large audience or readership very quickly. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp (where responses can be instant) can represent something of a nightmare for an employer. It is important to remember that social media, if abused, can have a significant impact on relationships within the work place and could result in serious legal consequences.

Social media misuse by employees has become a frequent and complicated issue for employers to address. Although social media can be an extremely valuable resource for organisations, it can also pose a serious challenge to both employees and employers. Inappropriate social media misuse e.g. racial or sexual harassment could lead to employers being held vicariously liable for their workers’ misbehaviour.

When an employee misuses social media, firms need to know how to respond and handle it. Therefore, it is vital for companies to devise a clearly defined social media policy by which employees abide. It is important that employers notify workers about the nature of these policies and the potential ramifications of any violations.

So, when employers want to act against employees who make offensive remarks, such disciplinary action should come as no surprise. Such remarks can cause embarrassment, at best. At worst can hurt a firm’s reputation and lose them customers. Even if the remarks were posted years ago, they can still come back to haunt the employer and the employee.

The difficulty of dealing with social media use by employees for organisations can be seen in the case below.

Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016 Mr Creighton was dismissed for tweets which were made three years earlier. He had made negative remarks about colleagues and his boss on Twitter. The claim that Mr Creighton posted offensive remarks on Twitter resulted in his dismissal for gross misconduct even though he had worked with the organisation for 30 years.

Held: The Tribunal further clarified that the disciplinary policy of THA included “defaming the company or undermining its image by the use of social media” as an example of gross misconduct. The appeal panel rejected Mr Creighton’s appeal to the decision, arguing that he was aware or should have been fairly aware of the implications of his conduct as the disciplinary policy of the company. 

There are more and more cases of social media defamation – which emphasises a need for extremely specific social media rules and regulations in the terms and conditions of an employer. 

Employees are going to be very foolish if they assume it’s a credible argument to claim that social media comments happened outside working hours, were believed to be posted on an account that is supposed to be “secret” or posted years earlier, which Mr Creighton found out.

The importance of having a social media policy

As previously mentioned, establishing a solid social media policy is vital for an organisation. From the workers’ viewpoint, it is important that they are aware of the existence of such a policy, understand its substance and also recognise any potential consequences for failing to follow its rules.

Employers are also urged to review and update social media policies on a routine basis. New platforms and technology continue to be developed at a quick pace today and to maintain the knowledge of social media is simply made part of induction and training methods.

It is extremely necessary for an employer to make clear to its employees the kind of conduct which may justify dismissal. Usually, this may be done via a section in the employee handbook which addresses the consequences of misconduct in the workplace.

Additionally, an acceptable induction technique for new personnel may centre on the kinds of behaviour which the corporation would not condone. Regular refresher training for current and long-term personnel may be beneficial and, in large organisations, this would be a necessary function of the Human Resources Department.

Panera Bread

There was a huge news outbreak when a Panera Bread employee leaked a video of a man laughing hysterically that’s racked up almost 1 million likes (now that’s a lot), as a plastic packet of frozen macaroni and cheese is dropped into a boiler, burst open and then poured into a bowl geared up to serve to customers. The lady who posted the clip offers a thumbs-up in the hat that marks her as a worker of Panera Bread.

A link to the video can be found below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yGSQ1BULWg

The clip introduced a wave of complaints in October 2019 from dissatisfied clients of a chain recognized for “fast casual” eating commonly perceived as a step in quality above other quickly made or fast food meals. Commenters stated they expected more than warmed-from-frozen dishes, or — as one critic put it — “glorified hospital food.”

Unfortunately for the employee she later posted on Twitter stating, ‘lol I lost my job for this’. The employer was clearly very unhappy at the negative media attention and being ‘outed’ for lying to its customers and providing them with low quality food.

Conclusion

In conclusion, employees should be incredibly careful of what they are doing or how they areusing social media during or outwith their working hours as their employers will have the right to investigate any implications arising from employees’ misconduct.

One of most likely repercussions arising from employees’ misconduct in privacy cases, is that the business and those involved will experience reputational damage. Whether this reputational damage is a result of offensive language in a tweet, forms of bullying in a Whatsapp groupchat or even now a TikTok exposing behind the scene practices of a company – there can be significant consequences. The preponderance of evidence shows that how employees conduct themselves in what they may consider private, has a major effect on workplace relations.

References

Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd [2017] EWCA Civ 22

Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08)

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), (2020) ‘Employment law’ Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016

Crossan, S. J. (2019a) ‘It happened outside work … (or it’s my private life!)’ Available at: https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/07/it-happened-outside-work-or-its-my-private-life/ [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Crossan, S. J. (2019b) ‘I’m a political activist: don’t sack me!’ Available at: https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/05/im-a-political-activist-dont-sack-me/[Accessed: 29 April 2020]

Group, E., 2004. X v Y, CA, 28 May 2004, EWCA Civ 662 – Personnel Today. [online] Personnel Today. Available at: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/x-v-y-ca-28-may-2004-ewca-civ-662/ [Accessed 29 April 2020].

Knowles, H., 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2019/10/14/woman-says-she-was-fired-over-tiktok-video-exposing-panera-breads-use-frozen-mac-cheese/ [Accessed 29 April 2020].

Legislation.gov.uk. 2020. Employment Rights Act 1996. [online] Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/18/section/95 [Accessed 29 April 2020].

startups, (2019) ‘Employee privacy and employee confidentiality: Know the laws’ Available at: https://startups.co.uk/employee-privacy/ [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Sterling Law, (2018) ‘Privacy in the Workplace’ Available at: https://sterling-law.co.uk/en/privacy-workplace/ [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Team Employment, 2017. Employment Law Case Update: Creighton V Together Housing Association Ltd. [online] Warner Goodman. Available at: https://www.warnergoodman.co.uk/site/blog/news/employment-law-case-update-creighton-v-together-housing-associat [Accessed 28 April 2020].

The Independent, (2019) ‘Campus outcry as teacher stands for German far-right party in European elections’ Available at: https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.180519/data/8919156/index.html [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

X v Y [2004] EWCA Civ 662

Copyright Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini, 28 April 2020

Dismissal

Photo by Bruske Dede on Unsplash

By Helan Ali, Rebecca Brodie, Cameron Crossan, Jack Holland and Eve Richmond (Editor: SJ Crossan)

Introduction

Dismissal occurs where an employers terminates the contract of employment between themselves and the employee. There are several types of dismissal that can arise such as: fair, unfair, wrongful, summary and constructive.

Perhaps the most common mistake amongst members of the public concerning dismissal is the tendency to confuse wrongful and unfair dismissal: they are entirely separate (Crossan, 2017). An unfair dismissal is one which breaches or contravenes statute; whereas wrongful dismissal occurs when the contract of employment is breached.

In all dismissal claims, it is important to determine if the claimant is actually an employee. This status is outlined in S230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 in that the individual in question must be employed under a contract of service.

Employment law – always a tricky area to navigate as a result of its sheer volume becomes particularly difficult when it comes to the area of dismissal – as there can be a delicacy when it comes to terminating the employee’s contract. If you look at recent media stories, there are several high profile dismissal cases such as former senior civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam pursuing an unfair dismissal claim against UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel or the UK retailer, Asda (part of the Walmart group) forcing their employees to accept new contracts or to face dismissal.

Unfair dismissal

Fair dismissal occurs when there is a termination of the employment contract, but the employer has the right to act in this manner as per S98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The employer may have fair grounds to dismiss an employee under grounds of capability where the employer genuinely does not believe the employee is able to carry out their role any longer. Such a dismissal can be seen in Taylor v Alidair [1978] IRLR 82 where a pilot was dismissed from his contract after he landed a plane negligently and there was serious danger to life and limb.  The pilot’s subsequent dismissal was completely fair in the circumstances.

An employer may also have the grounds to dismiss an employee on the grounds of conduct. Generally, one act of gross misconduct could potentially result in an employee’s dismissal.  However, employers must have clear guidelines and these must be adhered to, but it does not necessarily mean that in every situation the same same outcome i.e. that of dismissal be the end result. Employers are entitled to have recourse to what is known as a reasonable band of responses, which might include the following:

  • Verbal or written warnings
  • Demotion
  • Dismissal
  • Deduction in pay (if the contract so permits)

If the employer has acted reasonably when carrying out the dismissal of the employee, there can be no overturning of that decision by an Employment Tribunal. This is regardless of whether the Tribunal would have taken a more lenient approach i.e. a preference for a final written warning over dismissal (see Iceland Frozen Foods v Jones [1983] ICR 17).

Employees are not exempt from their employer’s code of conduct even when they leave the premises as their actions taken outside of work can still result in a dismissal.  This can be seen in McLean v McLane Ltd EAT 682/96 where an employee was drunk and disorderly outside working hours. He was also found to in possession of cannabis (a Class C drug in the UK).  This information was released to the media which reported the story and, as a result, the employee was dismissed. This action by the employer was deemed fair by the Employment Tribunal.

Not all employees are fairly dismissed and the actions of the employer might mean that have been unfairly dismissed. To qualify for employment rights regarding unfair dismissal, an employee must normally have a minimum of 2 years’ continuous service (as per the Employment Rights Act 1996), but there are numerous exceptions e.g. discrimination, health and safety and whistle-blowing dismissals.

Employers can, admittedly, find a way around the 2 year continuous service period by employing someone on short-term contracts, thus ensuring that the minimum qualifying period is never met and the employee has not acquired any rights in respect of dismissal.

In some employment roles it is not possible to be unfairly dismissed due to the nature of the role e.g. UK armed forces and/or police service staff. Employees have the right be accompanied to a dismissal meeting if they choose to do so, they can bring a fellow employee or trade union official. Further details on this can be found under S10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999. Employers should adhere to their company guidelines and follow procedural fairness when disciplining employees – especially if dismissal is an option they are considering (as demonstrated in British Homes Stores Ltd v Burchell [1978] IRLR 379).

Wrongful dismissal

Moving on to the issue of wrongful dismissal, where the contract is breached due to the dismissal procedure. The most common example is the employee does not receive the requisite notice period from the employer.  In this instance the employee would not require two year’s continuous service to raise a claim in this regard. The statutory minimum notice period, according to S86 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, is one week for each year of service up to a maximum of 12 weeks. 

Claims for wrongful dismissal must be made within three months’ minus one day of the effective date of the termination of the contract to the Office of Employment Tribunals (OET). The case of Morran v City Council of Tenants (1998) is highly instructive.

Morran claimed wrongful and unfair dismissal when his employer dismissed him without being given the compulsory notice period; he just missed out on accumulating enough continuous service. Held by the Scottish Court of Session, Morran was entitled to claim wrongful dismissal and receive compensation however he could not claim unfair dismissal as he had never acquired the actual right to bring such a claim. Employees who claim wrongful dismissal tend to be reimbursed by compensation. It would be very rare for an employee to go back to their job after claiming wrongful dismissal.

In fact, S236 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (Consolidation) 1992 states that no court or Tribunal can issue an order for specific implement or anything which will force the parties to work together under an employment contract.

Summary dismissal

Another type of dismissal is summary: “This is when you dismiss someone instantly without notice or pay in lieu of notice, usually because of gross misconduct (for example theft, fraud, violence).” (UK Government, 2020). Summary dismissal if not handled properly can be wrongful or unfair. An employer will need to prove the employee has committed violent or serious acts or health and safety breaches.

Even if an employer feels summary dismissal is the preferred option, it is worth stepping back and taking stock. It is often better and far safer to suspend an employee on full pay and then investigate the situation to head off a potential claim for unfair and/or wrongful dismissal.

Summary dismissal will be justified if the employer can prove the act committed by the employee amounts to gross misconduct in the workplace. However, if the employee can argue that their actions were not that of gross misconduct and no notice period was given employer will be liable for wrongful dismissal. The remedies available to the employee would be compensation.

Constructive dismissal

One last dismissal claim is that of constructive dismissal. This arises when an employer commits a serious breach of the employment contract and the employee has no alternative but to resign. In these types of claims, employees can treat themselves as dismissed as the employer’s behaviour has effectively destroyed the employment contract.

The individual claiming constructive dismissal is saying S/he has been unfairly dismissed and for this claim to be granted they must prove the employer’s conduct was so severe that it amounted to a fundamental or material breach. Constructive dismissal occurs in “situations where the employer made unauthorised deductions from wages; subjected to bullying and harassment; where the employer refused to follow the proper disciplinary or grievance procedures.” (Crossan, 2020)

In Sharp v Western Excavating Ltd [1978] ICR 221, Lord Denning explained the rules regarding constructive dismissal:

An employee is entitled to treat himself as constructively dismissed if the employer is guilty of conduct which is a significant breach going to the root of the contract of employment… then the employee is entitled to treat himself as discharged from any further performance.”

As a point of interest, Sharpe was not entitled to claim constructive dismissal: his employer was perfectly within its rights to refuse him time off from work to go and play cards. The employer’s behaviour was entirely reasonable and thus did not represent a material breach of the employment contract.

Procedural fairness

When contemplating dismissal as an option for disciplinary offences, it is often safer for employers to suspend the relevant employees on full pay and carry out a full investigation, rather than dismiss employee instantly. Employers should ensure that disciplinary procedures are clear and consistent and comply with current ACAS Codes on discipline at work (see link below).

https://www.acas.org.uk/acas-code-of-practice-on-disciplinary-and-grievance-procedures

Time limits for Employment Tribunal claims

Claims for both unfair and wrongful dismissal must be made within three months’ minus one day of the effective date of the termination of the contract to the Office of Employment Tribunals (OET). Failure by the claimant to submit an application within the time limit will mean that the claim is time barred i.e. it cannot normally be heard by the Tribunal – no matter its merits.

Remedies for dismissal

A claimant who brings a successful action for dismissal may be entitled to the following remedies issued by a court or a Tribunal:

  • Compensation
  • Reinstatement
  • Re-engagement

If the employee can claim dismissal, they could be entitled to compensation and/or reinstatement (failing that, re-engagement if reinstatement to their old position is no longer available). An employer does not have to reinstate or re-engage the employee and may find it more acceptable to pay a higher sum of compensation.

Sir Philip Rutnam

A current unfair dismissal case is that of Sir Philip Rutnam, former Permanent Secretary at the UK Home Office. Sir Philip is claiming unfair dismissal against his former boss, the current UK Home Secretary Priti Patel MP.

Sir Philip resigned because he is alleging that he was subjected to bullying by Mrs Patel (she denies these claims). At the time of his resignation, Sir Philip, was the Home Office’s most senior official, and he claimed that there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” operation against him. Sir Philip presented a claim to the Employment Tribunal for unfair (constructive) dismissal against the Home Secretary. A Cabinet Office investigation was initiated in March 2020 concerning the allegations against Mrs Patel in order to establish if she had breached the ministerial code. (Patel faces unfair dismissal claim from ex-adviser, 2020). The case is ongoing, but if Sir Philip is successful in his action, it will be hugely embarrassing to the UK Government.

Jo Millington

In another, recent case relating to constructive dismissal, a leading forensic scientist called Jo Millington was a victim of sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. The scientist was asked by her boss whether she disliked him because of her sexuality. Millington, who is gay, took her case to an Employment Tribunal. She launched claims for sexual orientation discrimination, breach of contract and constructive dismissal against her former employer, ArroGen Forensics after the company’s CEO Joe Arend speculated whether her sexuality was the reason behind her evident dislike of him.

Arend had inquired whether Millington had a problem with him “because of her sexuality”, pointing out he was “big” and “used to play rugby”. The Reading Employment Tribunal was told Millington that she had previously complained about Arend’s behaviour when he referred to the level of her expenses and salary as “crazy”. The Tribunal found the company liable for discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, constructive dismissal and breach of contract. It concluded that Jo Millington regarded her sexual orientation as a confidential matter; Millington was granted compensation. (Lowe, 2020).

No smoking!

In another unfair dismissal story, a long serving worker at a water bottling plant was sacked for smoking on the premises. The employee took a claim to Tribunal for wrongful and unfair dismissal, which resulted in a successful claim. The claimant, Mr Andrew was a team manager for production at Montgomery Waters Limited, where the no smoking rule was introduced in 2004. Employees were, however, permitted to smoke in a designated ‘smoking hut’.

Bosses were informed that Andrew was seen smoking outside the ‘smoking hut’. CCTV was viewed and appeared to show Andrew smoking, on four occasions, in prohibited areas. The footage showed a man wearing red overalls and Andrew was one of two people to wear these. Andrew, who had 15 years’ service with the company, was suspended during the disciplinary investigation. Andrew denied the allegations, but was still dismissed from his employment. During the Tribunal Hearing, the judge highlighted the vagueness in the firm’s handbook on whether smoking in prohibited areas would amount to misconduct. The judge also observed that it was the employer’s responsibility to enforce strict rules restricting smoking in particular areas. Although Andrew’s claims for both wrongful and unfair dismissal were upheld, the compensation awarded to him was reduced by 50% on the basis that he had contributed to his dismissal (Powys County Times, 2020).

New T&Cs

A controversial case regarding the potential threat of dismissal is Asda’s introduction of a new contractual agreement known as ‘Contract 6’, which will replace the existing agreement. It was introduced back in 2017 and, at this time, signing the new contract was voluntary.

‘Contract 6’ abolished paid breaks, introduced compulsory bank holiday working, staff could also be asked to work flexible hours and work in different departments within the store. In August 2019, Asda were accused of forcing employees to agree to accept ‘Contract 6’.

Asda stated that their employees are required to sign the new contract by November 2019 and, if they failed to do so, their contract of employment would be terminated. Employees would not be entitled to sick pay until the contract was signed. The GMB Trade Union attacked the new agreement and claimed that, under the new conditions, employees would be worse off. The main objection raised by the employees and their trade union was the inflexibility of the contract.

Under these new terms, day shift employees had to be more flexible with their working hours – they had to be available for work between 5am and midnight. It also meant employers could give less notice than before with regard to changing shifts. Employees took the view that Asda was disregarding employment law by unilaterally changing key terms and conditions.

In response to the claims being made, Asda may be able to justify their dismissals as fair in terms of Section 98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 on the grounds that the employer can show that some other substantial reason is the justification behind terminating contracts.

In Asda’s case, the company may be able to justify their actions on the grounds that the new contractual arrangements have been necessitated as a result of a company restructuring exercise. This could make the dismissals potentially fair (Crossan, 2017).

Currently, lawyers for Asda and the GMB Trade Union are at loggerheads. One claim for unfair dismissal has so far been submitted by a former Asda employee, Duncan Carson. He was dismissed due to not signing the new ‘Contract 6’. Carson had worked at Asda for 13 years in total, and a large part of his legal argument is that “a contract is an agreement between two parties”. Carson believes, if one person can change the contract unilaterally.

Furloughing employees

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), announced by HMRC on 20 March 2020, is a UK Government funded scheme to provide financial support for employers to allow them to continue to pay part of their employees’ wage costs rather than lay them off during this crisis.

Eligible workers are put into the scheme by employers when agreement is made between both, and these employees are now furloughed workers (Association of Taxation Technicians, 2020)

Nunn (2020) explains that the scheme allows companies to ‘furlough’ their employees, covering 80% of the wage cost, allowing the claim to include 80% of their employee’s gross salary with cap of £2,500 a month.

CIPD (2020) defines furlough as a ‘temporary leave of absence from work’ due to economic conditions of affecting the company or country.

Although this is a new concept for the UK labour-force, the scheme does nothing to change how the fundamentals of UK employment law e.g. it does not mean a break in continuity of employment. The employee must give written agreement to the employer before being enrolled in the scheme.

The CJRS ensures the job security of the British workforce due to employers being unable to provide pay.

The official government site (UK Government, 2020) announced that the scheme is only temporary; set to last a maximum of 4 months, with a 3 consecutive week minimum period for each employee to be furloughed.

The government site explains that employees on sick leave are not eligible for furlough whilst the business is reclaiming Statutory Sick Pay. HMRC allows employers with less that 250 employees to reclaim 2 weeks of Statutory Sick Pay for each employee off work for a coronavirus related cause, although the method to do so has still to be put in place by the HMRC. Employees with multiple jobs can also be furloughed from either or both jobs, as the £2,500 wages’ cap applies to each job.

In order to be eligible for the government scheme, the employer must have PAYE account, and each employee must have been included on RTI submission in the pay period on or before 19 March 2020 (CIPP, 2020).

The UK Government (2020) also announced that any employees made redundant before 28 February, due to the impact of Coronavirus, could be eligible for furlough status – as long as they were on the PAYE scheme before they were dismissed. Employers could claim for them also and this part of the furlough scheme has prevented those in industries, such as hospitality, from being almost certainly made redundant.

It is, of course, up to the employer if they choose to furlough any dismissed employees who are eligible to partake in the CJRS and there is no legal requirement for the employer to go down this path.

Therefore, utilising the CJRS gives employers the cash-flow for the wage costs to be able to keep employees on their payroll for when the business reopens, as an alternative to dismissing them during this global crisis. At this present time,it ensures job security for the employee but it may also mean living with a reduced wage.

Conclusion

To summarise, dismissal is a vast and complex area of employment law yet once broken down becomes that bit clearer to understand.  The area is ever changing with cases now coming against the Government itself and what pathway that may open if Rutnam is successful in his claim against Patel.  There are also the uncertainties in the world just now surrounding coronavirus and the impact it was have on employee’s not only with their wages but with their employment status when this all ends.

References:

Association of Taxation Technicians, 2020. COVID-19: Job Retention Scheme- details for employers [online]. Available at <https://www.att.org.uk/covid-19-job-retention-scheme-details-employers> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

BBC News. 2020. Patel Faces Unfair Dismissal Claim From Ex-Adviser. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52356574> [Accessed 23 April 2020].

CIPD, (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19): furlough guide [online]. Available at <https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/employees/furlough> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

CIPP,2020. Further updates to Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme guidance foe employers and employees [online]. Available at <https://www.cipp.org.uk/resources/news/further-updates-to-cjrs-employers-employees.html> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

Claire Knowels, 2017. What is the difference between unfair and wrongful dismissal [online] Available at https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/experts/legal/unfair-dismissal-wrongful-dismissal-differences (Accessed 26th of April 2020)

Crossan, S. J., 2017. Introductory Scots Law: Theory and Practice 3rd Edition. In: The Law of Employment. Glasgow: Hodder Gibson.

Crossan, S.J. (2020). Constructive dismissal. Scots Law [online] Available at https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/04/09/constructive-dismissal/ (Accessed 26th of April 2020)

Employment Rights Act 1996

Employment Relations Act 1999

Lowe, Y., 2020. Leading Forensic Scientist Wins Sex Discrimination Case. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/23/leading-forensic-scientist-wins-sex-discrimination-case/&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2020].

Nunn. D, 2020. HMRC reveals 20 April start date for Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme [online]. Available at <https://www.aatcomment.org.uk/trends/coronavirus/april-20-start-date-for-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme/> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

Powys County Times. 2020. Water Bottling Plant Worker Sacked For Smoking In The Wrong Place Wins Compensation. [online] Available at: <https://www.countytimes.co.uk/news/18339002.smoker-wrongfully-dismissed-hearing-rules/&gt; [Accessed 24 April 2020].

Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992

UK Government, 2020. Check if you can claim for your employee’ wages through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme [online]. Available at <https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme> [Accessed 25th April 2020]

UK Government, 2020. Fair dismissal [online] Available at https://www.gov.uk/dismiss-staff/fair-dismissals (Accessed 26th of April 2020)

Copyright Helan Ali, Rebecca Brodie, Cameron Crossan, Jack Holland and Eve Richmond, 28 April 2020

Constructive dismissal

Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

Two days on the trot and I find myself discussing dismissal in connection with former employees of the UK Government. Yesterday, I addressed the case of Sonia Khan, a former Special Adviser to two Chancellors of the Exchequer, who has a very strong case for unfair dismissal.

I now want to turn to the another prominent case of dismissal with which the UK Government has had to face recently. Last month, Sir Philip Rutnam who had been the Permanent Secretary at the UK Home Office (the Ministry of the Interior) took legal action against his former employer. The Permanent Secretary is the top civil service post in a Government Department and the post-holder would work very closely with the Secretary of State and her ministerial team.

The background to Sir Philip’s legal action against the Government is pretty sensational. He alleges that he was forced to resign from his post due to the unreasonable actions of his boss, Priti Patel MP, the Home Secretary. He is alleging that Ms Patel behaved in a bullying manner towards him and other civil servants in her Department. In short order, Sir Philip is claiming that he was constructively dismissed.

A link to the story as reported in The Guardian about Sir Philip’s legal action can be found below:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/03/top-civil-servant-begins-legal-case-against-priti-patel-and-home-office

Constructive dismissal is usually described as an employee jumping ship before s/he can be pushed over the side by the employer. It is a resignation, but it is not treated as such if the employee has good grounds for terminating the contract of employment.

In terms of Section 95(1)(c) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, constructive dismissal is defined in the following terms:

‘the employee terminates the contract under which he is employed (with or without notice) in circumstances in which he is entitled to terminate it without notice by reason of the employer’s conduct.’

The key phrase here is ‘by reason of the employer’s conduct’ and this is the reason why the employee has chosen to end the employment relationship.

The employee’s right to claim constructive dismissal arises in situations where the employer’s conduct is to be regarded as a material breach of the employment contract and the employee is left with no alternative but to resign. Normally, a resignation would not be regarded as a dismissal: if an employee resigned in a fit of pique s/he would not be entitled to claim State benefits (Universal Credit).

The employer’s conduct must be so serious in order to justify the employee’s decision to resign. When an employee claims that he has been constructively dismissed, he is claiming that he was unfairly dismissed. The right of constructive dismissal would arise in situations where the employer made unauthorised deductions from wages; subjected to bullying and harassment; where the employer refused to follow the proper disciplinary or grievance procedures; or where the employee was ordered to use equipment that was clearly dangerous or sub-standard.

In the well known case of Sharp v Western Excavating Ltd [1978] All ER 713, [1978] ICR 221, Lord Denning laid down the essential conditions for constructive dismissal:

An employee is entitled to treat himself as constructively dismissed if the employer is guilty of conduct which is a significant breach going to the root of the contract of employment, or which shows that the employer no longer intends to be bound by one or more of the essential terms of the contract, then the employee is entitled to treat himself as discharged from any further performance. If he does so, then he terminates the contract by reason of the employer’s conduct. He is then constructively dismissed. The employee is then entitled in those circumstances to leave at that instant without giving any notice at all or, alternatively, he may give notice and say that he is leaving at the end of the notice. But the conduct in either case must be sufficiently serious to entitle him to leave at once. …. the employee must make up his mind soon after the conduct of which he complains. If he continues for any length of time without leaving, he will be treated as having elected to affirm the contract and he will lose his right to treat himself as discharged.”

In Wishaw & District Housing Association v Moncrieff [2009] UKEAT0066/08, the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Scotland provided helpful guidelines for Employment Tribunals when dealing with claims for constructive dismissal.

According to Lady Smith, the President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, an Employment Tribunal dealing with unfair constructive dismissal must have regard to the following issues:

1. The specific incident which led the employee to resign from employment (the so called last straw) must be pinpointed;

2. Once this incident has been pinpointed, the Tribunal must carry out an objective assessment to judge whether it can contribute to a chain of events which taken together convey the overall impression that the employer has breached its implied duty of trust and confidence; and

3. If the incident has the potential to be viewed as breach of the duty of trust and confidence does it in fact constitute the last straw in a chain of events which would permit the affected employee to treat himself as constructively dismissed?

Conclusion

In constructive dismissal claims, the employee is alleging that the employer’s behaviour has effectively destroyed the employment contract by committing a material breach. However, employees must be careful: the employer’s conduct must be so serious that it allows the employee to treat herself as dismissed.

Employees should take proper legal advice before taking such a step. It could be disastrous if they get it wrong. Get it right and employees can claim unfair dismissal. Stella English, 2010 winner of the BBC’s “The Apprentice” television programme knows all about getting it wrong. Ms English resigned from employment with Lord Sugar and claimed constructive dismissal. Her action failed (see Stella English v Amshold Group Ltd Case No 3200079/12).

In Nationwide Building Society v Niblett [2009] UKEAT/0524/08, was very clear that merely because an employer has behaved unreasonably towards an employee does not necessarily provide grounds for claiming constructive, unfair dismissal:

It is not the law that an employee can resign without notice merely because an employer has behaved unreasonably in some respect. In the context of the implied term of trust and confidence, the employer’s conduct must be without proper and reasonable cause and must be calculated or likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of confidence and trust between employer and employee“.

Related Blog Article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/04/08/undignified-exit/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 9 April 2020

Undignified exit

Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash

The dismissal of Sonia Khan

In August 2019, a story which was widely reported in the British media, caught my attention: the abrupt dismissal of Sonia Khan as a special adviser (or ‘Spad’) with the UK Government. Ms Khan had worked for two previous Chancellors of the Exchequer (the UK Finance Minister). She was summoned to a meeting with Dominic Cummings, the UK Prime Minister’s top political adviser and sacked. Ms Khan was ordered to surrender her security passes and escorted from Downing Street by an armed Police Officer. All in all, it was a very undignified and humiliating exit for Ms Khan. Needless to say, Mr Cummings did not follow any disciplinary procedure when he made the decision to give Ms Khan her marching orders.

This decision was far from wise and Ms Khan has an extremely strong case for unfair dismissal in terms of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (she has the necessary continuous service of more than 2 years required to bring such a claim and no warnings were issued to her).

This affair led to me think about humiliating dismissals by employers and whether the affected employee could claim damages for the manner of their sacking? In other words, can the sacked employee claim that their feelings were injured as a result of the way in which they s/he was dismissed?

Links to articles about Sonia Khan’s dismissal can be found below:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/sajid-javid-dominic-cummings-fires-special-adviser-johnson-brexit-sonia-khan-a9085056.html

https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/no-10-must-pay-sajid-javids-fired-aide-tens-of-thousands-in-compensation-a4232216.html

Injury to feelings in discrimination claims

When discussing discrimination claims in terms of the Equality Act 2010 (primarily), I often stress the issue of injury to feelings as an element that will be included in the calculation of a final award by an Employment Tribunal.

In several Blogs (please see the end of this article for the relevant links), I have discussed the importance of the Vento Guidelines or Scale.

In Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police (No 2) [2003] EWCA Civ 1871 compensation limits of £15–25,000 were laid down in situations where injury to feelings was involved in cases involving sex and race discrimination. In Sturdy v Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust ET Case 1803960/2007 14th and 15th April 2009 the Employment Tribunal decided that, since Vento had been decided in 2003, a higher rate of inflation had to be considered hence the increased award made to a victim of age discrimination.

These awards for injury or hurt feelings have now become known as the Vento Guidelines and in Da’Bell v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (2009) EAT/0227/09, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (sitting for England and Wales) brought them into line with inflation.

Since Da’Bell, the Vento guidelines are usually updated annually in line with inflation.

The current bands or scales (from 6 April 2020) are:

♦ £900 to £9,000 for the lower band

♦ £9,000 to £27,000 for the middle band

♦ £27,000 to £45,000 for the top band

What’s the situation with unfair dismissal claims?

In Dunnachie v Kingston upon Hull City Council [2004] EWCA Civ 84, the English Court of Appeal set the cat amongst the pigeons when it stated that a compensatory award for unfair dismissal could also include injury to an employee’s feelings. The Court of Appeal was clearly relying upon an obiter remark made by Lord Hoffman during the decision of the House of Lords in Johnson v Unisys [2001] UKHL 13.

As far back as the decision by the short lived National Industrial Relations Court (1971-1974) in Norton Tool Co Ltd v Tewson [1972] EW Misc 1, the position was quite clear: the compensatory award in unfair dismissal claims did not include injury to an employee’s feelings in connection with the manner of the dismissal suffered by him or her.

Lord Hoffman’s obiter statement and the decision by the Court of Appeal in Dunnachie appeared to place this principle in considerable jeopardy and opened the door to what could have been a potentially significant, new development in unfair dismissal case law. Clearly, it would be advantageous for the House of Lords to provide a definitive ruling on this matter.

Subsequently, Kingston upon Hull City Council appealed against the judgement of the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords. 

On Thursday 15th July 2004, the House of Lords delivered its judgement in this case ([2004] UKHL 36). Their Lordships (Lord Hoffman amongst them – ironically) killed off any idea that an award for unfair dismissal could include injury to an employee’s feelings for the manner of the dismissal.

Compensation, therefore, in unfair dismissal claims will be concerned with the employee’s economic losses only.

Conclusion

The decision of the House of Lords in Dunnachie v Kingston upon Hull City Council [2004] UKHL 36 was and remains a clear restatement of the orthodox position as set down by Sir John Donaldson all those years ago in Norton Tool Co Ltd.

As Lord Steyn, one of the Law Lords, remarked in Dunnachie:

“On the other hand, the correctness of the Norton Tool decision was not an issue in Johnson v Unisys. It is true that there were references by both sides in the oral argument to Norton Tool. But the House heard no adversarial argument exploring the correctness or otherwise of that decision. In these circumstances a definitive overruling of a decision which had stood for nearly 30 years would have been a little surprising.”

In fact, Lord Hoffman’s observation (and it was nothing more than observation we are now assured) could in no way be interpreted as an attempt to overturn a long-standing and well-established legal principle. Lord Hoffman, in Johnson v Unisys [2001], was not “inviting the House to overrule a longstanding decision on a point of statutory construction that was not in issue and not explored in opposing arguments.” The statement by Lord Hoffman was clearly obiter dictum i.e. things said by the way which do not form part of the actual court’s judgement and that was the end of the matter.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/hurt-feelings/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/09/bad-hair-day/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/23/exclusion/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/10/everyday-experiences-of-racism/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/22/sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones-but-names-will-never-hurt-me/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 April 2020