It’s official. I’m a fully signed up member of Sky TV. I get to indulge in the football, my wife gets US dramas and we both get the F1. My family’s view? That we’ve ‘gone posh’… Yes, Sky TV is viewed with incredulous eyes within our family clan.
Why do I suddenly sound like a satellite TV salesman? Well, recently, on a whim, I recorded a program about the 1969 moon landing on the TV, which was excellent and marked the 50 year anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. One of the most fascinating aspects of the show concerned interviews with NASA engineers who knew that one incorrect/flawed part on the shuttle could lead to mission failure and/or the deaths of the astronauts in front of the watching world. In fact, such were the risks that President Nixon had a printed speech ready in the event the astronauts died.
What does this have to do with employment law? Well, unbeknown to some, it is possible to dismiss a member of staff for ‘gross negligence’ and, being an employment law aficionado, the programme set me to thinking about this little-used reason for dismissal.
Rather than use the moon landings as an example, which seems a bit morbid and disrespectful to the astronauts, let’s come up with a fresh scenario: Apollo Amazing Aero Limited provides luxury lifts for fancy hotels and expensive buildings. The lifts are bespoke to each customer, who pay a very large amount of money expecting swift and quality-driven installation and exceptional reliability. Given the nature of the business, word of mouth between luxury clients is very important to the company.
Let’s consider two employees who install a lift each for the client: Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty. Charlie Brown is provided with a part of poor quality (from a poorly produced batch) and, due to this, the section of lift he installs is prone to fail (which it later does). The employer (AAA Limited) is annoyed at Charlie Brown because they felt he should have checked the part thoroughly before inserting it into the lift machinery, even though this isn’t part of their training and isn’t usual procedure.
Should Charlie Brown be dismissed for gross negligence? This would be unlikely as Charlie Brown hasn’t been trained to inspect the quality of parts and, instead, reasonably believes that he is expected to accept that parts provided to him are of sufficient quality (unless obvious to the naked eye).
On the other hand, Peppermint Patty was given parts of appropriate quality but, due to being distracted by engaging in a lengthy WhatsApp conversation on her phone during an hour of installation, isn’t paying full attention to the job and ends up inserting two of the relevant parts into the lift the wrong way around without noticing. Due to this, the lift almost immediately fails once installed and requires a £5,000 repair bill which the company have to stomach due to the client’s (understandable) fury and threats of informing other potential customers of the ‘shoddy’ quality on a so-called ‘luxury and bespoke’ product.
Is Peppermint Patty’s job at risk if the full facts become known to the employer? Potentially, yes. Patty would be more than aware that AAA Limited ban use of mobile phones (outside of break periods) and that inserting parts into the lift in the wrong way creates great risk of the lift not working safely meaning a very unhappy customer, a need for repair and loss of profit and reputation for the luxury-customer facing company.
Naturally, it isn’t always that simple because Patty’s length of service, employment record and other factors need to be accounted for but, overall, it is a genuine question with Patty as to whether employment should continue whereas, in comparison, Charlie Brown’s job is relatively safe.
Overall, most employees won’t be dismissed due to making mistakes as, at the end of the day, making mistakes is part of life and the only way to avoid mistakes is doing no work at all! However, an intentional lack of attention and/or dangerous attitude to carrying out key tasks (like Peppermint Patty above) can sometimes, in serious situations, put an individual’s employment at risk and bring them back down to earth!