A recent case that went to the Employment Appeal Tribunal highlights important issues for employers. The case of London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham v Keable involved a local authority Public Protection and Safety Officer within the Environmental Health Department with 17 years’ service dismissed for serious misconduct arising out of comments he made at rallies outside parliament. The employee concerned had been filmed having conversations. That video made itself online without his knowledge or consent. He didn’t do anything to link his employment to the video. As a result of it being widely re-tweeted, he was publicly identified as the local authority’s employee.
The employee was an anti-Zionist and a member of the Labour Party and Momentum organiser who was attending the rally in his own personal time. The comments he was filmed making included controversial statements alleging the Zionist movement, prior to World War II, collaborated with the Nazis.
The Tribunal found that the videos were calm, reasonable, non-threatening and conversational. The employee explained that he didn’t intend to offend anyone – it was a private conversation involving an exchange of political opinions carried out between two people willingly.
A local councillor wrote to the employer calling for action against the employee so he was suspended and a disciplinary procedure was followed that led to his dismissal.
The employer acknowledged that the employee had freedom of assembly and expression which included a right to offend others (human rights). However, it found that his comments were likely to be perceived as unlawfully hostile on religious grounds and so brought the employer into disrepute. The Dismissing Officer didn’t find the employee had been guilty of discrimination or anti-Semitism but did find that “a reasonable person would conclude that the claimant had said that the Zionists had colluded with the holocaust”.
At the Employment Tribunal, whilst the Claimant’s conduct was potentially a fair reason for dismissal, procedurally the employer was found wanting – in particular:
- The employee had not been informed of the specific allegation which led to his dismissal; and
- The possibility of a lesser sanction of a warning wasn’t discussed with him.
The Tribunal found that he should be reinstated.
Whilst the case illustrates the sorts of issues employers are now getting embroiled in around social media and freedom of expression, what caught my eye was the basic weakness in the employer’s procedure ie:- that what the employee was accused of didn’t tally with what the decisionmaker ultimately dismissed him for. This isn’t uncommon. Often the allegations are framed at the stage where an employee is perhaps suspended pending investigation or a statement is made that covers a multitude, such as “your conduct in being filmed and the making of comments”. The disciplinary invite letter might be prepared centrally by HR from a template without any real liaison with the person who is potentially going to be making the disciplinary decision. There is always room for error here and before writing the disciplinary letter the writer should be thinking ahead to the evidence and what it does/doesn’t prove.
In this case, the employee quite reasonably asked which of his comments that had been recorded was offensive as this is what had been put in his invitation letter. The decisionmaker was thinking instead about the case in terms of his having suggested Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust – that was not put to the employee. The Tribunal easily found it was outside the range of reasonable responses to dismiss somebody for misconduct which hadn’t been put to them as part of the investigation or disciplinary process.
What can you do about this?
If the decisionmaker, having heard all of the evidence, wants to frame the outcome in a different way to the disciplinary allegations in the invitation letter, they should pause the process. They should then invite the employee to a further meeting to discuss the fresh allegation that they wish to consider and it may well be a relatively short meeting given all of the discussions that have already been held but it will be as important for the employee to be accompanied at the meeting as normal. They should then come to their decision.
Compensation was reduced by 10% because of the employee’s culpable conduct in making critical comments about the investigation report.
The employer appealed. Interestingly the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld that it was procedurally unfair to not have raised with the claimant whether a warning was appropriate. Any employee, when questioned, would always say that a warning was preferable to dismissal! This is stretching the requirements of the ACAS Code of Practice. Yes, an employer should consider the appropriate lesser sanction as an alternative to dismissal but it is not a pre-requisite to consult the employee about that…….
The safest thing to do is, routinely in disciplinary hearings, consider whether a warning would be an appropriate sanction and be seen to explain why it wouldn’t.