Now I’m no fan of football – in fact, I’d go as far as to say I have an irrational hatred of the sport – but I do have to concede that football tends to throw up interesting cases. Recently Leeds United Football Club were in the High Court in relation to having dismissed their Technical Director on the grounds of gross misconduct.
Gwyn Williams was on a salary of £100,000 a year and his contract was terminable on 12 months’ notice. His employers had begun a restructuring exercise which identified his post as being at risk of redundancy but no doubt they had done the maths and worked out that the costs of dismissal were going to be significant. Perhaps this is what led to the managing officers deciding to start investigations into a number of senior managers, including Williams, to see if they could find any grounds to dismiss them in order to avoid the hefty payments. They even went so far as to appoint forensic investigators to trawl through the club’s email system.
The investigators found an email containing lewd images which had been received by Williams some 5 years earlier and forwarded by him to colleagues. This was then used to justify not making redundancy payments and instead inviting him to a disciplinary hearing which Williams didn’t attend. He was summarily dismissed the next day. He then brought a claim in the High Court contending that he had been wrongfully dismissed and was entitled to the salary he would have received during his 12 months’ notice period.
Williams was unsuccessful as the High Court dismissed his claim. Because the email had been forwarded to a junior female colleague as well as other colleagues, this conduct (viewed objectively) was found to be sufficiently serious to warrant summary dismissal. Indeed, the Court found that forwarding the email to a junior colleague in itself would be sufficiently serious because it had exposed the club to the possibility of a claim for sexual harassment. The Court found the fact that Williams had worked for over 5 years after sending the email was irrelevant because the club had not known about the breach at the time that it occurred – instead it was entitled to take action when it was discovered, which it had.
Interestingly, the Court also rejected the argument that the club was prevented from relying on the breach of contract by Williams because it had been actively looking for something to catch him out on to save money. The club’s motives were irrelevant, the key issue is that with his conduct the employee had breached his own contract of employment and the club had accepted that breach.
For me, this case is sad in that it is yet another sport related case where we hear of senior figures believing that it is acceptable to circulate inappropriate material in the workplace and that they are somehow untouchable. Hopefully, in this case, Mr Williams will have learnt his lesson, given that he will no doubt have been asked to pay the club’s costs of the High Court action. It highlights again the need for employers to train those in senior positions who may feel they are above the policies in the staff handbook, as well as illustrating for employees that they need to understand the risks that they are taking if the circulate inappropriate material at work.
Employers who might be tempted to go fishing and looking for dirt in order to avoid paying staff need to be careful: this case was just about breach of contract. Unfair dismissal law will mean employers have to have potentially fair reasons for dismissal and have followed a fair procedure. Whislt a lewd email might give you grounds to dismiss, you’d still need to be clear that a fair procedure was followed.