How to avoid a French-style World Cup mutiny in the workplace

Yes, the World Cup is here. Not that that is news. Even if you’re not a football fan, all the adverts for cheap flat screen TVs to ensure you are ‘World Cup ready’ would have done the trick.

Now, naturally, for most people, memories of recent World Cups include a ponytailed England goalkeeper flapping at a Brazilian cross/shot, getting humiliated at the hands of tiny nations (Iceland, anyone?) and, of course, hitting Row Z from the penalty spot against ze germans.

However, for me, one of the most controversial, shocking moments of recent years was the French squad effectively refusing to train at the 2010 World Cup! Just imagine you’ve waited 4 years for the World Cup to come round, you’ve played well enough to make your national team and then, as a team, after a huge training pitch row with management, you walk out of training (into the team bus) in protest at the manager! On that occasion, it was due to the decision to send Nicolas Anelka home after the striker had reportedly sworn at the manager, Raymond Domenech. Needless to say, team spirit hit a massive low and they limply crashed out of the tournament soon after. C’est terrible!

So, what happens in similar situations at work? What happens if a staff member commits an unacceptable offence ending in dismissal against their line manager and their colleagues then actively rebel against the manager in question?

Is it fair to dismiss for action which falls short of gross misconduct?

It is well known that dismissal can result from a single matter which is usually found to amount to gross misconduct, or as the result of more than one event, with the prior matters resulting in written warnings and/or a final written warning. Indeed, most disciplinary procedures outline this process and generally include examples of what will normally be treated as gross misconduct.

However, in Quintiles Commercial UK v Barongo the question for the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was whether it was fair for Quintiles to dismiss Mr Barongo for conduct which was initially classified as gross misconduct but subsequently downgraded to serious misconduct.

Quintiles supplies staff for pharmaceutical companies. Mr Barongo started working for them in October 2012 and was latterly engaged to sell drugs for Astra Zeneca. On 5 January 2016 he was dismissed on notice on two grounds. First, he had failed complete Astra Zeneca’s compliance training course by the deadline of 3 November 2015 and, second, failing to attend their compulsory training course on 19 November 2015. Mr Barongo did not deny the allegations and he also accepted that they amounted to misconduct on his part. However, he contended that he had been dealing with other matters. He said that he had not intentionally failed to engage with the training but he had chosen to priorities other matters. This had been at a time when he was on a performance improvement plan.

There was a disciplinary hearing conducted with his line manager which took place by telephone. As the EAT pointed out, conducting the hearing by phone might not have been best practice but it was not in itself unfair. His line manager concluded that the duty of trust and confidence which ought to exist between employer and employee had been broken and, as a result, Mr Barongo was dismissed on notice, for gross misconduct.

He appealed against the decision and the appeal was heard by one of the employer’s directors, Mr Athey, who took the view that there had been a breach of the duty of trust and confidence, but that it amounted to serious rather than gross misconduct.

Mr Barongo submitted a claim of unfair dismissal to the Employment Tribunal. The Tribunal took the view that the downgrading of the misconduct from gross to serious was highly significant:

How to deal with convictions for sexual offences committed by a person associated with the employee

Judgments of the Supreme Court concerning employment law issues are fairly infrequent and usually worthy of attention. That is certainly so in the recent case of Reilly v Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council which concerned an individual convicted of the surprisingly common offence of downloading indecent images of children.

Ms Reilly was the deputy head teacher of a primary school. She was in a close but not sexual relationship with a Mr Selwood and they did not live together. In 2003 they bought a property in joint names as an investment and Mr Selwood lived there, although he did not make any payments to Ms Reilly. Ms Reilly did not live there but she occasionally stayed overnight, including on 24 February 2009 when, the following morning, she awoke to the arrival of the police who searched the property and arrested Mr Selwood on suspicion of having downloaded indecent images of children. In September Ms Reilly was promoted to the post of head teacher at the school and in February 2010 Mr Selwood was convicted of making indecent images of children by downloading. On a scale of 1-5, the images ranged from level 1 to level 4. He was sentenced to a three year community order, made the subject of a sexual offences prevention order (which included a ban on him having unsupervised access to minors) and he was required to take part in a sex offenders’ programme.

Ms Reilly was immediately aware of the conviction and sentence but chose not to disclose them to the school governors or the local authority. In June 2010 the authority became aware of the conviction and she was suspended on full pay. She was required to attend a disciplinary hearing, the allegation being that, in failing to disclose her relationship with a man convicted of sexual offences concerning children, she had committed a serious breach of an implied term of her contract of employment, sufficient to warrant dismissal for gross misconduct. Following a hearing in May 2011 she was summarily dismissed. The panel was particularly concerned that Ms Reilly continued to refuse to accept that her continued association with Mr Selwood might pose a risk to children at the school. Her appeal against her dismissal failed.

Ministry of Justice confirm huge increase in Employment Tribunal claims

I’ll start with the big headline: Employment Tribunal claims (brought by individual Claimants) increased by 90% in the period between October to December 2017 (in comparison with the same period in 2016). To cut a long story short, the recent abolition of Employment Tribunal fees has led to Tribunal claims nearly doubling.

A small disclaimer is that the above statistic is currently a provisional figure, however, in reality, that figure tallies with my own expectations and experience over the past 12 months.

These statistics are slightly ironic given that, before the Supreme Court found Employment Tribunal fees to be unlawful, one of the main reasons the lower courts refused to find Employment Tribunal fees unlawful because there was ‘no evidence’ of the fees preventing individuals from accessing justice.

Is the National Living Wage causing problems?

I think that most employers would take the view that the principle that employees should be paid a fair wage for their work is one that should be supported. However, sometimes a one size fits all approach can throw up anomalies. I should be clear: I’m not talking about those who exploit people to work excessively long hours for very poor pay (as low as £2.00 per hour), often in plainly unacceptable working conditions. I’ve written in this blog about people who have been kept effectively as slaves in the most appalling circumstances and these employers should be rooted out and dealt with severely, where appropriate in the criminal courts.

It is worth remembering that, when introduced on 1 April 1999, the adult National Minimum Wage was £3.60 per hour. Since then, it increased steadily for a number of years (around or a little ahead of inflation) but the big jump came on 1 April 2016 when it was hiked from £6.70 to £7.20 as part of the merger and rebrand as the National Living Wage. Subsequent increases (including those coming into effect on 1 April 2018) are here.

[table id=1 /]

Employees who are paid below the minimum wage can complain to an employment tribunal or to HMRC. If HMRC upholds the complaint the employer can be sent a notice of arrears plus a penalty. The maximum fine for non-payment (in addition to making good the arrears) is £20,000 per worker. In recent years HMRC have made a point of publishing (with high profile PR) lists of those businesses that have paid below the prescribed rates. It is not widely known that, in addition, directors of defaulting companies can be banned from being directors (or shadow directors) of any company for up to fifteen years.

So, what are the problems referred to in the title?

Frozen out: Can it be too cold to work?

Spring is here. Or is that winter? All over the country, people are facing difficulty travelling on account of snow and ice and, here on Merseyside, things are no different.

In fact, this is quickly turning into that time of year when I receive multiple text messages from friends, some more jokey than others, asking if there is a minimum temperature at which they are required to work because their workplace is so cold or, as my favourite text states: ‘so cold as to give a polar bear frostbite!

Now, poorly polar bears aside, there isn’t a set temperature at which staff can suddenly declare it to be too cold and go home without recourse. Even if there was, those staff would be highly unlikely to be paid during their absence from office.

Instead, businesses rely on guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE recommeds that office-based workers be exposed to temperatures no lower than 16C and any workers whose work requires ‘physical effort’ (i.e. being on your feet and moving arond) are not exposed to temperatures below 13C.

However, be very aware of that word above: ‘guidance‘.

Dismissal for beard that was “too long” and “too religious” upheld

Back in December 2015 I commented on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Ebrahimian v France, which concerned the termination of employment of a health worker at a hospital who refused (on religious grounds) to remove her headscarf when she was on duty at work. By way of a brief recap, state secularism (or laïcité) is a strongly protected principle in French society. That is why you will not hear hymns or carols sung in French schools and there was a big fuss last month when a village commune tried to place a nativity scene in the square in front of the local mairie. It was determined that Ms Ebrahimian, by wearing a symbol of religious affiliation, was breaching her duties as a public official. In its judgment the court held that the non-renewal of her employment contract did amount to an interference with her right to manifest her religion, contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that interference had the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, pursuant to French law. Accordingly, her claim failed.

A similar case has now surfaced in the Versailles administrative Court of Appeal. A trainee doctor of Egyptian origin was dismissed from his job at Saint-Denis hospital centre in Seine-Saint-Denis because his “imposing” beard constituted an “ostentatious display of religious belief”. The individual concerned declined to deny or confirm that his appearance was intended to be a way to “demonstrate his religious activity”.  On 19 December, the Court of Appeal supported the decision, noting that although the wearing of a beard “even long”, cannot “on its own” cannot (necessarily) constitute a sign of religious affiliation, the “circumstances” entitled the hospital to at as it did.

The Santa Clause: Employment Law issues in Lapland

Penguin Santa You know who’s having a low media presence this year? Santa Claus! I mean, just look at the Christmas adverts this year! Without naming names, the ‘biggest’ Christmas adverts this year involve a monster, a carrot and a toy factory. The only ‘big’ advert that sees the big, red man is one in which Paddington bear mistakes a burglar for Santa!

So, why the low media presence? Where is Santa?

On that front, I may be able to help. You see, Mr Claus is currently having some Employment Law and HR issues with his workforce and has been busy obtaining legal advice on what to do next. It’s a stressful time of year, particularly with less and less people believing in him (there seems to be a rumour going around that he isn’t real) and certain big rival companies in the logistics business setting up in competition (the main one named after a geographical location considerably far away from Lapland).

Put simply, Christmas needs saving and Santa can’t operate without solving his current employment law issues. With this in mind, let’s go on a Christmas journey and help Santa save Christmas!

Can an employee be disciplined for looking for another job?

Job Application Form You’d think this would be a weird question but I actually get asked this question on a fairly regular basis. Thankfully, I mostly get asked it by employees rather than employers but, in saying that, I can recall two employers (at a past law firm) that asked me this exact question.

The answer? Quite simply: it depends. It depends on the circumstances but, theoretically, yes, an employee can be disciplined for job hunting. In practice, however, it would be a rare occasion where an employer could safely do so.

To explore the dividing line, let’s look at three examples.

A bitter feud played out in the High Court

Embed from Getty ImagesOver the last few weeks the High Court has heard some astonishing evidence in the bitter wrongful dismissal claim brought by the former CEO of Signia, a wealth management company, as reported in The Independent.

High profile entrepreneur John Caudwell has frequently made the news over the last couple of decades. The founder of mobile phones retailer Phones 4U has presented himself as a forthright, no-nonsense style of businessman. According to the website Caudwell.com (owned, registered and administered by one John D Caudwell and which is currently “down for maintenance”) he is a “successful entrepreneur and philanthropist” who “built an immensely successful mobile telecoms company”.

Signia is a wealth management company that was jointly founded by Nathalie Dauriac and six of her Coutts Bank colleagues in 2010. Another co-founder was Mr Caudwell. The business focuses on high end wealth management. All appeared to be well until details emerged of an extraordinary dispute between Ms Dauriac and Mr Caudwell, ostensibly in connection with expenses claims amounting to some £33,000. Ms Dauriac claimed that the expenses investigation was unfair and was, in effect, trumped up to deprive her of her £12 million 49% stake in the business, which was bought out for a nominal £2.00 fee.

Giving evidence in the High Court trial Ms Dauriac says that when they set up the business in 2010, “Mr Caudwell had asked me…as a last minute condition of jointly setting up the business, to give an undertaking to him not to have children, a proposal I did not agree to”.

Ms Dauriac claimed in evidence that Mr Caudwell orchestrated an “elaborate conspiracy” against her, resulting in her claim of constructive dismissal.

For its part, Signia maintained that she wrongfully claimed the expenses, that her approach to them was “brazen” and that she was “guilty of gross misconduct”.

In his evidence, Mr Caudwell said that the breakdown of his business relationship with Ms Dauriac, who he considered to be a “best friend” was like suffering a “bereavement”: