Unfair Dismissal: Acceptable HR Involvement

by Ger Connolly, Partner in the Employment Law and Benefits team at Mason, Hayes & Curran

Often when an employee is suspected of misconduct, an employer will commence an investigation prior to initiating any disciplinary process. While it is always advisable for different individuals to carry out the investigation and the disciplinary process, it is not uncommon for the same HR support to be involved in both procedures. Although HR plays an important role in this regard, their advice should be limited to addressing questions of procedure and process and the appropriate level of sanction to achieve consistency. HR should not stray into the territory of offering opinions on culpability or guilt.

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A stark example of HR going beyond scope is a recent UK decision Ramphal v Department for Transport EAT/0252/14 where it was held that HR actively intervened in a disciplinary process thereby causing an unfair dismissal.

Facts

In this case, an employee was investigated for potential misconduct in relation to his expenses and use of hire cars. A manager was appointed to conduct an investigation and, if necessary, to request a disciplinary meeting. However, the manager was inexperienced in disciplinary proceedings and during the course of preparing his report he received advice from the HR department.

Differing Findings

The manager’s first draft report contained a number of findings favourable to the employee e.g. he found that the misuse was not deliberate; there was no compelling evidence that his actions were deliberate; and that the explanations given by the employee for petrol expenditure were “plausible”. He concluded that the employee should be given a final written warning.

Following advice taken from the HR department, the manager included in his final report findings which differed from those set out in his initial report. It stated that “having given careful consideration to all of the facts of the case, I am minded to conclude that, on the balance of probability, the Claimant [employee] is guilty of gross misconduct in respect of both the misuse of the corporate card and the misuse of hire cars funded by the Respondent. My recommendation is that he should be dismissed from his post.”

Determining Unfair Dismissal

The EAT considered the extent to which the decision taken by the manager to dismiss the Claimant may have been improperly influenced by HR. It held that an employee facing disciplinary charges is entitled to assume that the decision will be taken by the appropriate officer, without having been lobbied by other parties as to the findings he should make regarding culpability. It also held that representations made by others to the dismissing officer that go beyond legal advice render both the process and procedure unfair.

Conclusion

While this case serves as a useful reminder of the role of HR, it also highlights the need to ensure that the person appointed to investigate or chair disciplinary meetings has some training on what is involved.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

About the author

Ger is a partner in the Employment Law and Benefits team at Mason , Hayes & Curran. He advises employers in the public and private sector on all employment law and industrial relations issues. Ger acts for clients in various employment claims such as unfair dismissal, equality/discrimination, occupational stress, fixed-term and part-time work, restraint of trade, strikes and picketing.
Ger has extensive experience in advising on all aspects of the termination of employment including redundancy and collective redundancy, unfair dismissal, wrongful dismissal and constructive dismissal. He provides expert support to the firm’s corporate clients on the various employment law issues arising in the context of mergers and acquisitions. This includes in-depth due diligence exercises, compliance reviews, negotiating employee-related indemnities and warranties and advising on the applicability of the European Communities (Protection of Employees on Transfer of Undertakings) Regulations 2003