Imprecise Allegations Render a Dismissal Unfair
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has held that an employee’s dismissal following an allegation of ‘loss of £3,000’, when the real reason was the employer’s belief that she had stolen the money, was unfair. In the EAT’s view it is a ‘fundamental right’ that an employee who is accused of dishonesty should have that allegation put to them.
In the case of Celebi v Scolarest Compass Group UK and Ireland Limited (Compass), Mrs Celebi worked as a Chef Manager at a sixth form college where Compass provided catering services. She had been trained on the procedures for accounting for stock and cash. On the 14th November 2006, Mrs Celebi claims that she collected £3,400 in cash, which she counted and placed in a bag and gave to the courier for the bank.
However, the bank reported that they only received £400.
Mrs Celebi was suspended while Compass undertook an investigation into the missing money. Their letter of suspension to Mrs Celebi stated the allegation was ‘loss of £3,000 cash’. In a subsequent letter to Mrs Celebi which invited her to a disciplinary hearing, Compass told her the allegations consisted of “incorrect reporting of stock figures, following of financial procedures, discrepancies in banking” and that she was at risk of dismissal.
Mrs Celebi sent a letter in response which stated it “appears” that she was being accused of theft.
However, Compass never confirmed to Mrs Celebi that she was indeed facing an allegation of theft.
The Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal Decisions
Mrs Celebi’s claim of unfair dismissal before an Employment Tribunal failed and she appealed to the EAT.
The EAT upheld her appeal and ruled that her dismissal was unfair, applying the legal principles set out in Strouthos v London Underground (2004) that in disciplinary proceedings the charge against an employee should be ‘precisely framed’.
The EAT noted that the Employment Tribunal had heard evidence from the Compass Manager who took the decision to dismiss Mrs Celebi and that her evidence was that she believed Mrs Celebi was guilty of theft. Although Mrs Celebi suspected that she was being accused of theft, that did not absolve Compass from its obligation to make this clear to her. In fact when Mrs Celebi wrote to Compass outlining her suspicion, it was an “opportunity” for Compass to have made it clear to Mrs Celebi what was being alleged.
The EAT noted that money can go missing “for a range of reasons”, such as inefficiency, a mistake or theft and that an employee’s response will vary depending on whether they are accused of negligence, inefficiency or dishonesty. Compass had failed to spell out to Mrs Celebi that in her case, she was being accused of dishonesty in respect of the missing money.
The EAT held that the failure to put the allegation of theft to Mrs Celebi rendered her dismissal unfair. The case was remitted back to the Employment Tribunal to determine remedy.
This case highlights the importance of accurately and precisely setting out the nature of disciplinary allegations to employees in any letter suspending them or inviting them to a disciplinary hearing. Phrases which are ambiguous or vague should be avoided and employers should be clear about exactly what acts or omissions they are alleging and whether they are considered to be, say, poor performance or misconduct.
For instance, the phrase ‘loss of £3,000’ used by the employer in this case, could mean that the £3,000 was ‘lost’ because of inefficiency, a mistake or theft. The EAT commented that as an employee’s response will vary depending on whether they are being accused of negligence, inefficiency, or dishonesty, it is crucial employers make the nature of their allegation clear to the employee.