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The Importance of Conducting a Fair Disciplinary Process

A local authority employee who complained that his job description did not match his duties and that he was substantially underpaid for the work he in fact did has had his hopes of compensation for alleged unfair dismissal boosted by a tribunal ruling (Holman v Devon County Council).

Mr Holman had worked for Devon County Council under a series of fixed-term contracts for over seven years before he was appointed, under a three-year fixed-term contract, as a Climate and Energy Ambassador in March 2012. There followed a dispute as to the accuracy of the job description, Mr Holman arguing that the duties involved meant that the job should be treated as of greater seniority than it was and that he should be paid 20 per cent more. To make his point, he withdrew his labour in respect of those parts of his work which he did not consider fell within his job description. He was suspended after being accused of failing to obey a reasonable management instruction and that triggered his resignation.

His claim of constructive unfair dismissal was rejected by an Employment Tribunal (ET) on the grounds that his suspension had been lawful and there had been no repudiatory breach of his employment contract to justify his resignation. However, in overturning that decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found that the ET had erred in law.

The EAT noted the close connection between Mr Holman and the manager who suspended him and that the latter had been instrumental in drawing up the former's disputed job description. The ET had, however, failed to consider whether the manager should in those circumstances have been disqualified from taking part in the disciplinary process.

The ET had also erred in concluding that there was no mandatory requirement in Mr Holman's employment contract that the possibility of redeployment to another role should have been discussed with him prior to his suspension. The Conduct Policy and Procedure, which it was agreed formed part of his contractual terms and conditions, stated that alternatives to suspension 'should' be discussed. In the EAT's view, the ET's construction that this meant that alternatives to suspension should merely be encouraged was not a tenable interpretation of the document.

The case was sent back to the same ET for reconsideration in the light of the EAT's ruling.

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