Left Holding the Baby (and other employment problems)

There are certain questions that crop up regularly among my small business clients, and while every circumstance is slightly different, here’s some advice on how to approach some of these common issues if they occur in your organisation

I’ve an employee who always seems to need time off because of problems with her toddler. Last week she took two days off because he had an upset stomach. Her colleagues are getting a bit fed up with covering for her.

First of all, your employee has a legal right to take unpaid time off if an emergency situation arises with a dependant. This right is restricted to genuine emergencies (for example, if nursery ring to say the child is sick and needs to be collected) and not known issues (such as a hospital appointment for the child), and is also restricted to the time required to put in place alternative arrangements – which depending on the circumstances might be anything from an hour to a day – not to provide the care itself. It would be unusual for an ‘emergency’ to last more than a day. If the individual does need more time off, you may be prepared to allow them to take holidays or some other arrangement, but this is at your discretion.

If the employee seems to have ‘emergencies’ regularly, you can discuss with them the situation and look at ways of resolving it. Current case law suggests that the employee is not entitled to an unlimited use of this right. Consider ways that you might be able to get around the situation – for example short-term changes to working hours, or some other flexible arrangement. In the case of childcare particularly, you might want to discreetly find out if the employee’s partner could assist more (often in these cases it is the mum who ends up dealing with the problem every time, not the dad).

My business trades a lot with the EU and we’re badly affected by Brexit. A few members of our staff are vocally pro-Brexit. Can I sack them for promoting something which is damaging their employer?

Probably not. Although political views are not a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act, if someone feels they have been dismissed for holding a political opinion they can make an unfair dismissal claim even if they don’t have the normal two years’ service. You would have to have to show that dismissal was a reasonable response – and given that it’s unlikely that you can directly blame your employees for the current situation, it would be difficult to substantiate this.

What you can do is make it clear that people should not be using the workplace to promote political views. Someone who repeatedly broke this rule could be taken through the disciplinary procedure and ultimately dismissed. Make sure you apply the rule consistently though, not just against views that you disagree with!

I’m closing down part of my business in a few months and told the one employee in this area he’d be losing his job, and that he would be doing lower paid work somewhere else in the business. He got very irate and walked off the job, and has never returned. Now he’s threatening constructive dismissal – does he have a case?

Unless you were particularly abrupt or unpleasant in the way you told him or did it in a humiliating way (announcing it unexpectedly in front of colleagues for example), it’s unlikely. You are however putting him at risk of redundancy and needed to consult with him – including on whether the alternative work is suitable (if lower paid, it’s unlikely to be). That could leave you at risk of an unfair dismissal claim if the employee has more than 2 years’ service. As he’s walked off before you could undertake proper consultation, or even give him his legal notice, you are likely to have a defence against a claim, but it could get messy and time-consuming. If he does make a claim, consider settling through ACAS early conciliation or via a Settlement Agreement.

MPs and Constructive Dismissal

MPs and Constructive Dismissal

One of the side products of this week’s decision by a group of Tory and Labour MPs to quit their parties and sit as an independent group was a somewhat heated discussion on parts of social media as to whether some of them, particularly Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger, would be able to claim constructive dismissal over their alleged treatment by their party organisations.

The first thing to say is that MPs are not employees of their political parties, so the simple answer is no. But as constructive dismissal is something that worries many small employers, it’s worth clarifying what it is – and isn’t.

Constructive dismissal is behaviour by the employer that is so awful that the employee can consider that they no longer have any trust or confidence in the organisation they work for and resigns as a consequence. It can be thought of in some respects as the opposite of gross misconduct (a situation where an employee commits an act that the employer can no longer have any trust or confidence in them, e.g. stealing, assault, leaking commercial secrets to a competitor etc).

It could be a single act by an employer, such as unilaterally reducing someone’s pay or demoting them to a lower grade. It might be humiliating someone in the presence of their colleagues and subordinates (this Gordon Ramsay clip is a good example – warning contains strong language). It can also be the final straw in a series of events which allows the person to conclude they can no longer work there.

It’s also worth remembering that an employer is responsible for the behaviour of their staff. So, if an organisation ignored or failed to deal with allegations of bullying, harassment, insulting or threatening behaviour against an individual employee by their colleagues, which then led to the individual resigning, they could be deemed to have constructively dismissed the employee.

Constructive dismissal isn’t a situation where an employer makes a decision that the employee is unhappy about (I’ve been asked questions about in the past about whether making someone move from a private to a shared office could be constructive dismissal for example – it wasn’t). And remember that if the person doesn’t resign there can be no constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal is also quite rare. There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that it takes a lot of courage, even in a very difficult situation, to simply walk out of a job.  The second is that to win a case at a tribunal, the onus is on the employee to show that the employer’s actions were such that they were justified in resigning, rather than a normal unfair dismissal where the onus is on the employer to show that its decision was fair and reasonable.  Even though the case is – like all employment matters – decided on the balance of probability (what the judge thinks is the most credible explanation of events) rather than the criminal standard of absolute proof, it still puts an additional hurdle in the way of a successful claim.

Based solely on the reports and social media postings I have seen, had she been an employee then Ms Berger certainly would have strong grounds for a claim. Whether she would have succeeded would have been up to a tribunal judge to decide. But it’s a useful reminder to employers that trying to ‘force’ someone  (or allowing colleagues to force them) out of an organisation can have far-reaching consequences.

Gordon Ramsay