The main risks Anyone sacking a member of their staff faces three main types of potential push back by their ex member of staff. Firstly, the employee may claim they have not received the correct notice pay or other sums owed to them, secondly, they may claim unfair dismissal, once they have 2 years’ service and thirdly, they may claim discrimination.

Unfair dismissal claims are capped at 1 years’ salary or £74,200 compensatory award and a further basic award of up to £13,500 – depending on financial losses of the employee but discrimination awards are uncapped and may include damages for injury to feelings up to £36,000. That said, it is important to note that average awards are much less – between £4-5,000 for unfair dismissal and £12,000 for discrimination.

So how can you protect yourself? Key advice is: Put yourself in the employee’s shoes and think about how you would want to be treated. If you follow that commonsense rule you shouldn’t go too far wrong eg:- you are likely to investigate the situation thoroughly, listen to all sides including the employee before making a decision and not jump to conclusions. Canny employers draft a provision into the contract of employment enabling them to suspend an employee pending an investigation – this protects the business for example, a disgruntled employee cannot then contact customers or destroy computer evidence relevant to the investigation.

Follow a procedure – for unfair dismissal purposes you have to show that not only did you have a good reason to dismiss (such as the person being incapable of doing their job or guilty of misconduct) but you have to show that you have acted “fairly and reasonably in all the circumstances”. This certainly means following the basic steps outlined above but the ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievance should be the employers’ touchstone here – Employment Tribunals judge you by this standard and expect you to be familiar with it – it also contains handy flowcharts.

Whilst employees are entitled to bring a companion along to a meeting in which they are dismissed (a colleague or trade union official) you may also want to take a witness along. This person could help you take notes of the meeting but is also there to protect you as they can confirm you acted fairly if challenged.

So where do people tend to go wrong? The most common mistakes are

  • Inconsistency of decisions – dismissing for something that the last person who did it just had a warning for – this is unfair. If you want to distinguish between cases you have to be able to justify it on reasonable grounds such as the length of service and previous good record of the employee given the warning compared to the one that was dismissed.
  • Failure to investigate properly – an employer has to have a reasonable belief based on the evidence before them that an employee is guilty of misconduct. Even if an employee denies something outright if you have reasonable grounds to believe they were involved or did do something – you don’t need cast iron proof that they did, unlike criminal law.
  • Dismissing someone for poor attendance record when they have a medical condition such as depression which could qualify as a disability under the disability discrimination legislation. The employee then claims not enough was done to accommodate their medical position.
  • Pre-preparing letters of dismissal and presenting them to the employee at the end of the meeting – this makes your decision look pre-judged and will result in the dismissal being unfair. You must keep an open mind – there could be a reasonable explanation behind the situation as it appears to you.
  • Decision-makers taking account of matters which are not discussed in the disciplinary hearing ie:- the employee doesn’t get a chance to address this evidence and so the dismissal is unfair.
  • Not having an appeal stage making the case automatically unfair or the appeal decision-maker getting involved in the case when the original decision to dismiss is made so that they are not impartial which is unfair.
  • Rushing eg:- walking someone into your room, ambushing them with an allegation, deciding they are in the wrong and dismissing them. Notice of a disciplinary hearing should be given at least 24 hours before the meeting and it often helps to “think” overnight before coming to a conclusion and confirming dismissal, even if you have known all along that is where you are heading – that does mean it could take at least 72 hours  to follow the procedure but it is worth investing the time upfront to protect you against criticism at a later stage.
  • Not giving the employee the opportunity to be accompanied by a companion – failure to do this can result in a Tribunal award of up to £900