Bad medicine

Photo by Kendal James on Unsplash

A story which caught my eye over the last few days comes from the fair Canadian City of Toronto and involves misconduct dismissals. For a change, the dismissals do not involve social media misuse, but rather good old fashioned fraud.

150 members of staff working at a Toronto hospital were sacked for involvement in a sophisticated prescription fraud which was reportedly in the region of £3 million over an 8 year period. Defrauding your employer is, of course, an extremely serious breach of trust which materially undermines the contract of employment.

Interestingly, at this point, the Police in Toronto have not charged any individual with the crime of fraud – yet – but clearly the employer feels that it has sufficient grounds to go ahead with the dismissals.

I often to say to students that the employer merely has to have a reasonable suspicion that the employee has committed an act of misconduct. There is no need for the employer to demonstrate that the allegation(s) of misconduct meets the criminal standard of proof.

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

http://news.sky.com/story/150-toronto-hospital-staff-fired-over-prescription-scam-11760982

Had this story occurred in the UK, we would be talking about the matter in the context of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. If employers can show that the reason for the dismissal of employees is justified i.e. on the grounds of misconduct (fraud), it will be a fair dismissal. As a point of good disciplinary policy, of course, employers should always follow the proper procedures when deciding to dismiss employees on the grounds of dismissal.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 13 July 2019

I’m a political activist: don’t sack me!

Photo by Oprea Marius on Unsplash

Over the last few months, several of my blog entries have examined the impact of conduct or behaviour of employees which occur outside working hours. The focus of these blogs has largely centred upon social media use (or misuse if you prefer) by employees and the likely consequences of reputational damage which the employer might suffer. 

The overwhelming conclusion that visitors to this site should now have is that I take the view that what employees do in their private lives can have a significant impact on work-place relations. Yes, primarily we do  have rights to privacy, expression and association as enshrined in Articles 8, 10 and 11 respectively of the European Convention on Human Rights (amongst other things), but does this does not give us a blank cheque or free pass to behave badly or engage in downright  dubious activities outside working hours. In other words, our Convention rights are not absolute. 

I decided to write this recent blog entry on the back of a story which appeared in The Independent last month in conjunction with the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections held in Germany on 26 May 2019. It was reported that a German national – Dr Gunnar Beck – was a candidate for a far right political party in Germany called the AfD (the Alternative for Germany). 

Dr Beck is currently employed as a law lecturer at SOAS, University of London and many of his colleagues and the students were outraged when they learned that he was running as an AfD candidate for one of Germany’s seats in the European Parliament. There were calls for Dr Beck to be dismissed from his post at SOAS. 

As it happened, Dr Beck was one of 10 German MEPs elected for the AfD Party.

This story is a very good example of issues such as freedom of speech versus the employer’s duty to prevent discrimination and intolerance in the work-place. 

What should employers do if they stand accused of being complicit in the spread of extremist views or beliefs by one of their employees? It can be a very difficult call to make. 

A link to the story about Dr Beck as reported by The Independent can be found below:

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

Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the right to dismiss employees (quite fairly) for misconduct – whether in the work-place or outside. 

Furthermore, we live in times where political extremism of all shapes is much more prevalent. Again, the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employers – primarily agents of the State e.g. the Police and the intelligence services (and other sensitive posts) – the right to dismiss employees on national security grounds (see Home Office v Tariq [2011] and Kiani v The Secretary of State for the Home Department [2015]). Such a dismissal – even where the evidence against the employee in question might be fairly tenuous – would still constitute an automatically fair dismissal. 

Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 does protect an individual’s philosophical beliefs, but this does not mean that all sorts of extremist views will necessarily be tolerated (or should be tolerated) by employers. 

In Redfearn v Serco t/a West Yorkshire Transport Services (2005) the  employer dismissed Mr Redfearn on health and safety grounds because of his membership of the racist British National Party (BNP). Redfearn’s political affiliations might lead to violence arising in the workplace. 

This was not the last word on the matter and Redfearn took his claim to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the then United Kingdom equality laws did not provide sufficient protection to individuals like him who suffered discrimination on grounds of their philosophical (political) beliefs.

In Redfearn v UK [2012] the European Court of Human Rights stated that Redfearn had been dismissed on account of his membership of the British National Party and this was an example of unlawful discrimination. This decision effectively ensured that the protected characteristic of a person’s philosophical beliefs (now contained in the Equality Act 2010) is capable of including political beliefs.

In Grainger plc v Nicholson (2009), the Central London Employment Tribunal stated that individuals seeking the protection of the law [now contained in Section 10 of the Equality Act] must prove that the belief was “a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour”

A belief which demonstrates “a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” and this belief is ultimately “worthy of respect in a democratic society, [that it] be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others”.

This would seem to rule out protection for extremist beliefs, but as Redfearn UK [2012] clearly established employers will have to tread carefully. Essentially, the upshot of Redfearn is that employees are entitled to hold views which a large group within society may well find abhorrent and objectionable, but nonetheless such views fall within the protected characteristic of philosophical beliefs. Turning now to the employee holding such views or beliefs, the European Court of Human Rights made it very clear that such individuals did not have a right to act on these beliefs. So, for a person such as Mr Redfearn, he undoubtedly espoused racist beliefs by virtue of his BNP membership, but critically he had never acted upon these during his employment by, for example, subjecting a person from an ethnic minority group to unlawful, less favourable treatment. 

In 2018, Councillor Christopher McEleny of the Scottish National Party took legal action against his former employer, the UK Ministry of Defence for alleged discrimination and constructive dismissal  by reason of his political beliefs. An Employment Tribunal Judge, Frances Eccles ruled that McEleny’s beliefs in Scottish independence should be treated as a philosophical belief in terms of Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.

Whether McEleny ultimately wins his Employment Tribunal claim on what exactly motivated his ex-employer to act in the way that it did towards him remains to be seen. It is a decision or outcome in which many people are undoubtedly interested. 

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 5 June 2019

 

Social media and dismissal

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

Regular readers of this Blog will know that I have written several articles over the last few months about the legal consequences of social media (mis)use and the effects on relationships in the work place. Comments or images posted on social media by employees can have serious reputational consequences for their employers.

The Israel Folau case

In a blog published on 11 April 2019 (Social Media Misuse), I discussed the story about Israel Folau, the Australian rugby player who had posted homophobic comments on social media. Folau has now been dismissed by Australia for these remarks.

Please see a link to the story on the Sky News website:

Israel Folau: Australian rugby star sacked over anti-gay social media post
http://news.sky.com/story/israel-folau-australian-rugby-star-sacked-over-anti-gay-social-media-post-11721930

The employer must, of course, be able to prove reasonably that the employee’s misuse of social media will cause it to suffer reputational damage.

In Taylor Somerfield Stores Ltd ETS/107487/07 an employee was dismissed after posting a video on Youtube which involved a mock fight using Somerfield carrier bags in the work place. The video was uploaded to Youtube for a mere 3 days and only 8 people had viewed it – 3 of whom were managers conducting the disciplinary investigation. The Employment Tribunal was firmly of the view that the dismissal was unfair because the employer was not able to prove that it had suffered serious reputational damage.

As I have emphasised in previous blogs, employees will be very naive if they think that it is a competent defence to say that the social media posts occurred outside working hours. Employers are still very much entitled to treat such behaviour as an example of a breach of work place discipline. In serious cases of social media misuse, employers will be entitled to consider dismissal of employees on the grounds of misconduct (as per Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

Admittedly, this area represents something of a tightrope for employers to walk: they will have to operate a clear and comprehensive social media policy and employees must be made aware of any restrictions or expectations.

In the unreported Employment Tribunal decision of Grant and Ross Mitie Property Services Ltd (2009), the employer had a policy which restricted employee internet access. Unfortunately, for the employer, the phrase which permitted employee’s personal use of the internet to times that were “outside core working hours”, was deemed by the Tribunal to be ‘vague’ and lacking in certainty. This meant that the employees who had been dismissed because the employer was of the view that they had breached its policy on internet use had been unfairly dismissed.

There is also the matter of the rights that employees reasonably have to privacy and freedom of expression (as per their Article 8 and 10 rights respectively to be found in the European Convention, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998) (see Bărbulescu v Romania Application no. 61496/08 5 September 2017; and Smith v Trafford Housing Trust [2012] EWHC 3221 (Ch)).

I have also pointed out in previous blogs, the importance for employers in carrying out disciplinary proceedings which comply with current ACAS Guidance. Using the (current) ACAS Guidance is a critical risk management exercise for employers:

https://beta.acas.org.uk/investigations-for-discipline-and-grievance-step-by-step

Employers who act recklessly or swiftly and ignore proper procedures may well have cause to regret their actions down the road. As Sir Robert Megarry VC, the eminent English judge, remarked decades ago in John Rees [1970] 1 Ch 345:

When something is obvious, they may say, why force everyone to go through the tiresome waste of time involved in framing charges and giving an opportunity to be heard?As everybody who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; …

The above remarks are as valid in 2019 as they were in Sir Robert Megarry’s day.

Atherton v Bensons Vending Ltd ET/2411749/2018

This is a recent decision of the Manchester Employment Tribunal which raises some very interesting issues about employee use of social media specifically and the conduct of disciplinary proceedings more generally.

Darren Atherton (aged 55) worked for Bensons Vending Ltd, a small company. As a result of his employer making changes to its discretionary Christmas bonus scheme, Atherton made some very negative comments about the company’s Managing Director, Ken Haselden via a colleague’s Facebook page:

Comment 1

We’ve all just bought Ken a new dog with our Christmas bonus!!!”

Comment 2

“He spends a few grand on a new dog then we get told ‘no bonus this year’ but we can have a bottle!!! 

Comment 3

“Well, he can stick his bottle where the sun doesn’t shine because I refuse to be insulted in this way!!!

Atherton’s colleague, Simon Minshull had initially objected to the changes to the bonus scheme by posting comments on his Facebook page:

Comment 1

Just when you thought staff morale couldn’t get any worse, hey f***ing presto #insult #disgusted.”

Comment 2

The only difference between McDonalds and where I work is McDonalds has only one clown running the show.” (This second comment was accompanied by a picture of Ronald McDonald).

The changes to the bonus scheme were part of a cost cutting and efficiency savings exercise by the company and, from any reading of the above comments, Atherton and Minshull clearly disagreed with this new approach by their employer.

Negative remarks about the Managing Director were also made by Atherton and another colleague in the workplace. Several colleagues informed Haselden about these remarks stating that they had been very aggressive and vitriolic in nature.

Atherton’s colleague, Simon Minshull, was subsequently questioned about the posts on his Facebook account by Haselden. Minshull stated that he did not agree with them – they were Atherton’s opinions – and he apologised for any offence caused to Haselden. He was later suspended for the Facebook posts, but critically this suspension was lifted in the light of his swift apology to Haselden (and the fact that it was established that he had not made these comments). Minshull was permitted to return to work upon the conclusion of the disciplinary proceedings against him.

Atherton was called to a meeting with Mr Haselden in December 2017 to address the allegations which had been made against him and to investigate the social media posts. This was not a disciplinary meeting, but more in the way of an investigatory meeting. The actual disciplinary meeting took place in January 2018.

Dismissal without notice pay

The outcome of the disciplinary meeting was that Atherton should be dismissed without notice pay for gross misconduct in terms of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This was despite the fact that Atherton had a clean disciplinary record (until now) and had enjoyed a good relationship with his employer. Atherton’s comments on Facebook were “extremely derogatory” and Mr Haselden stated that he would find it “extremely difficult” to continue working with him. Atherton appealed against his dismissal, but the decision was upheld.

The fairness of the disciplinary proceedings

As part of his claim against the employer, Atherton challenged the fairness of the disciplinary proceedings taken against him. In particular, he objected to the fact that Haselden conducted the disciplinary meeting against him. Atherton’s contention was that he would not receive a fair hearing because Haselden was personally involved in the matter and, therefore, could not be relied upon to act objectively. This type of issue frequently arises where smaller employers are concerned. In an ideal world, a manager (such as Haselden) who has been involved personally in an issue involving alleged breaches of work place discipline should not be a participant in the disciplinary panel. This is, of course, easier in practice to ensure in larger organisations where there is a pool of experienced managers who will have had no personal involvement in the matter (or in other words: a particular axe to grind).

The appeals process

In situations involving smaller employers, this is where the appeals process takes on a critical significance. Appeals can often be used to cure actual or perceived defects in the conduct of the original disciplinary meeting. Although Haselden (with two others – an operations manager and a company engineer) had conducted the disciplinary meetings, he had not involved himself in the actual appeals hearing. This part of the company’s disciplinary procedure had been conducted by a Ms Pedley, a trained auditor and, as stated, above, Atherton’s dismissal was upheld.

At this point, Atherton also raised the difference in treatment between himself and Simon Minshull (who had kept his job after disciplinary proceedings against him had been concluded). Pedley refused to comment on individual cases on the grounds of confidentiality. She stated in her letter to Atherton upholding the dismissal that:

Length of service and clean disciplinary record are taken into consideration during all grievance procedures. However, given the
nature of the comment and the reluctance to remedy the grievance the
relationship between yourself and senior management has broken down
irretrievably”.

The Employment Tribunal’s decision

The Tribunal held that Atherton had been fairly dismissed in terms of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

He had made extremely derogatory comments via Facebook about Haselden. They were “personal” and they suggested “some impropriety” on Mr Haselden’s part (though more in the nature of “penny-pinching impropriety” suggesting Scrooge like behaviour rather than any financial misdeeds). Any member of the public who knew the company and reading Atherton’s comments on Simon Minshull’s Facebook site, would have a very negative view of Haselden. It was accepted by the Tribunal that Haselden would, therefore, potentially suffer reputational damage. It was also accepted that in a small company, it would be very difficult for Atherton and Haselden to work with one another again (the employment relationship had irretrievably broken down).

The Tribunal also addressed Atherton’s claim that the disciplinary procedure had been biased or lacking in objectivity because of Haselden’s involvement in the decision to dismiss him from employment. This indeed could have been a problem for the employer and may have prejudiced proceedings against Atherton. That said, however, the saving grace for the employer was the fact that Ms Pedley had been kept in reserve for an appeal hearing.

The Employment Tribunal Judge made the following observations about Pedley’s involvement in the appeal stage:

Ms Pedley is by profession an auditor and had clearly gone through the matters in great detail. Notes (page 95 and onwards) show how she dealt with the matter. … Because of that safeguard of the deployment of Ms Pedley, who I am satisfied went about her task objectively and exhaustively and independently, although regrettably for the claimant she came to the same conclusion, I am not satisfied that the determination by Mr Haselden at the dismissal stage rendered the dismissal unfair. The appeal was thorough, it was a re-hearing. Ms Pedley considered all the points that were being raised and came, I am satisfied, to an independent conclusion.”

As for the difference in outcomes between Atherton and Simon Minshull, a key justification for this was that Minshull had “apologised shortly after being challenged regarding his Facebook comments even though he had been suspended.” This was something that Atherton had failed to do – apologising only at the disciplinary meeting in January 2018. Furthermore, it was significant that the nature of Atherton’s comments were specifically directed against Haselden, whereas Minshull’s comments (although also negative) were much more generalised.

The failure to pay notice pay

This was an aspect of the employer’s decision that the Employment Tribunal disagreed with. Atherton, therefore, had a right to receive his entitlement to notice pay. In this sense, he had been wrongly dismissed by his employer. The Employment Tribunal judge stated very clearly that in order for an employee to lose his entitlement to notice pay there the employer must be able to demonstrate that the gross misconduct complained of crosses over a “very high hurdle”. In the judge’s opinion, the employer had not been able to overcome this hurdle and, therefore, Atherton was entitled to claim notice pay.

A link to the Employment Tribunal’s judgement in Atherton Bensons Vending Ltd can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5c4712dfe5274a6e6b6716e1/Mr_D_Atherton_v_Bensons_Vending_Limited_-_2411749_2018_-_Reasons.pdf

Conclusion

What have we learned about the decision of the Employment Tribunal in Atherton Bensons Vending Ltd?

Quite a lot actually:

  1. Employees will have to be extremely careful when posting material or comments on social media platforms – irrespective of whether this is about the employers or not.
  2. The case is yet another good example that misconduct committed inside or outside the work place or working hours can have reputational consequences for the employer. It can also lead to relationships in the work place breaking down irretrievably (especially in smaller organisations).
  3. Employers do not have a free hand to police employee use of social media. There must be clear guidelines laid down by the employer as to what constitutes acceptable and appropriate behaviour. At the same, employees have reasonable expectations that their rights to privacy and expression (as per the European Convention on Human Rights) will be upheld.
  4. The conduct of disciplinary proceedings by the employer is a critical issue. We have noted that potential conflicts of interest can occur in smaller employers or organisations where a manager can be investigator, dismissing officer and appeals officer. How does the employer address these issues and ensure objectivity in the disciplinary process?
  5. As with Atherton and Minshull, the employer was entitled to treat them differently: Atherton was dismissed while Minshull retained his job. There was nothing inconsistent or inherently unfair about this when the personal circumstances and behaviour of the two employees was examined.
  6. Finally, even in situations where gross misconduct has been proved by the employer, and the dismissal is deemed to be fair (in terms of Section 98(4): Employment Rights Act 1996), it will not necessarily mean that the employee loses his or her right to notice pay. The employer will have to overcome an extremely high hurdle in order to be entitled to invoke such a disciplinary sanction. As we have seen in Atherton, the Tribunal was not convinced that the employer had been able to prove that this was an appropriate punishment: the dismissal was fair; the failure to pay notice was not.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 May 2019

Drunk and disorderly?

Photo by Bobby Rodriguezz on Unsplash

Misconduct

Several of my previous blogs have focussed on misconduct inside and outside the work place. In the most serious cases of (gross) misconduct, an employer could fairly dismiss an employee (Section 98(2)(b): Employment Rights Act 1996.

That said, employers are well advised to follow proper pre-dismissal procedures – usually in line with the latest ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievance at Work.

Summary (i.e. on the spot) dismissal can be an appropriate response to a breach of discipline by an employee, but I tend to caution employers against this. The eminent English judge, Sir Roger Megarry VC was quite correct to warn employers about the dangers of what they might perceive to be an open and shut case (see John v Rees & others [1969] 2AER 274, CD). It’s always better to be safe rather than sorry and by carrying out a procedure, the employer is minimising its exposure to risk i.e. the possibility of a successful unfair dismissal claim brought by the employee.

A typical disciplinary process usually consists of the following stages:

  • Stage 1: The investigation of the allegations
  • Stage 2: The disciplinary meeting
  • Stage 3: The appeal hearing

If the investigation uncovers clear evidence that the employee should be exonerated of all allegations of misconduct, the employer is legally bound to put a stop to the disciplinary process (see A v B [2003] IRLR 405; Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust v Roldan [2010] EWCA Civ 522; Miller v William Hill Organisation Ltd UKEAT/0336/12/SM [2013])

It is also important to note that the employer must set out the disciplinary charges as clearly as possible so that the employee can prepare her case. The employer cannot, under any circumstances, play fast and loose with the disciplinary charges as this may undermine the integrity of the entire disciplinary procedure (see Strouthos v London Underground [2004] IRLR 636 CA and Celebi v Scolarest Compass Group UK & Ireland Ltd UKEAT/0032/10/LA [2010]).

If, however, matters proceed to a formal, disciplinary meeting, the allegations must be put to the employee and the evidence which supports them. The employee in turn has the right to present her case to the disciplinary panel or manager taking the proceedings. In terms of the Employment Relations Act 1999, the employee has a right to be accompanied by a colleague or a recognised trade union representative.

Should the disciplinary meeting arrive at a decision to dismiss the employee for misconduct, it is extremely important to allow an appeal (see West Midlands Co-operative Society v Tipton [1986] 1 ALL ER 513). An appeal can lead to the dismissal being upheld or overturned; and it can be used to cure any defects in the previous stages of the disciplinary proceedings.

Discipline at work

It’s very common (indeed essential) for employers to have detailed codes of practice or discipline which regulate the behaviour of employees inside and outside the work place. The content of disciplinary codes should be clearly communicated to employees. For new employees, this could be carried out as part of their induction process. For existing employees, a regular series of training seminars or development events could accommodate this aim. The urban myth that what happened outside the work place is no business of the employer is that exactly that: a dangerous myth. If staff misbehaviour outside working hours causes serious reputational damage to the business or the organisation, the employer is entitled to treat this as gross misconduct and to use the ultimate disciplinary sanction of dismissal.

Examples of gross misconduct might include any of the following:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Acts of bullying & harassment
  • Fraud
  • Negligent performance of duties
  • Theft
  • Persistent late-coming

The above list is by no means an exhaustive one, but it covers some of the most common examples of gross misconduct.

As I have discussed in a previous blog, It happened outside work (or it’s my private life!) (published on 7 February 2019), employers do not have an automatic right to meddle in employees’ private lives. The right to a private life is protected in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (as implemented by the both the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998). Employers will have to walk a very fine line between what is a legitimate act to protect their business interests and what would otherwise be unwarranted interference in the private lives of employees.

Lloyd’s of London

So, bearing all of the above in mind, it was with some interest that I read today that Lloyd’s of London, the financial giant, was introducing a new code of conduct for employees. This is in the wake of some unpleasant allegations being disclosed about the business – sexual harassment claims and drunkenness and drug taking.

Traditionally, the serving of alcohol at business meetings in the City of London or long, boozy lunches were as much a fixture of the Square Mile as was St Paul’s Cathedral. Alcohol oiled the wheels of commerce it was thought, but it also encouraged people to behave recklessly within a work environment.

It would seem that, in other work places, employees seem to know that they can’t turn up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but Lloyd’s obviously feels that it still has a problem with these issues and they need to be addressed. Admittedly, two years ago, the organisation did ban employees from drinking alcohol between 0900 and 1700 hours.

The new code of conduct at Lloyd’s will apply not only to its 800 employees, but also to any person who holds a pass to its London HQ (potentially such 40,000 individuals). Anyone attempting to enter Lloyd’s HQ who appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol (or both) will be denied admission to the premises.

A link to the BBC News article about the new code of conduct at Lloyd’s can be found below:

Lloyd’s of London insurance has a new code of conduct, but not everyone welcomes it.

Lloyd’s of London calls time on drink and drugs

Photo by Boris Stefanik on Unsplash

Conclusion

Misconduct by employees – both in and outwith the work place – can be used by employers as a potentially fair reason for dismissal in terms of Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Employers must ensure that employees clearly understand what is expected of them in terms of their conduct. It is very important, however, that employers carry out proper procedures when contemplating dismissal as the ultimate sanction for breaches of the disciplinary code. By implementing a new code of conduct, Lloyd’s of London is carrying out a risk management exercise i.e. spelling out what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in and outside the work place. This is very wise given the bad publicity which Lloyd’s has experienced in the past regarding allegations of employee misconduct.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 9 April 2019