When something unfair can be fair

Many small employers – and indeed employees – struggle with the concept of “fair dismissal”. In a way it’s not surprising, since fair in employment law terms means something different to fair in ordinary language. I’ve discussed before exactly what it means here and here, but when dismissal is combined with the strange legal term “some other substantial reason” it’s not surprising that people’s heads begin to spin.

Thankfully, we have a great example today of a real-life case where two of these legal situations apply – and it’s a situation I’ve encountered several times with clients and is always fraught with difficulty.

The company did sub-contracted work for a much bigger organisation. As part of one contract they had an onsite manager.  The client wasn’t happy with the performance of the contract and demanded that the company bring in a new manager. The company asked for time for the existing manager to try to improve things but the client was insistent.

The company then had a problem. They had an employee who had no job, and despite their efforts they did not have an alternative role for her that matched her skills and status. They did offer her a job on lower pay which she turned down. She wasn’t redundant however, as her job still existed, and because they had never discussed performance issues with her, the company had no grounds to dismiss her for this reason. Indeed, until the client raised it, they weren’t aware that there were problems with the contract.

They decided that they had no other option but to dismiss, using the “some other substantial reason” as their justification. The client did not want the employee on their premises and the company didn’t have another job for her. Quite understandably, the employee claimed unfair dismissal. She lost however because the tribunal ruled that the company had both a fair reason (she could not work on the contract she was employed on because the client didn’t want her) and they had followed a fair process (looking for alternative jobs). The tribunal did recognise that the situation was “unfair” to the employee in the normal sense of the word – and many would sympathise with her position –  but her employer had behaved fairly and legally.

It’s worth remembering that such cases are often good and easy to understand examples for small employers – and they also help to banish the myth that “tribunals are biased in favour of employees”.

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