Fairly or unfairly dismissed? That is the question!
There are lots of examples in the media of high-profile and well-paid people being unfairly dismissed. And the reasons for the dismissal will usually be just as relevant to people in more normal roles, so it's interesting to have a look at some cases.
Wrongful dismissal involves termination that breaches an employment contract, such as an employee being dismissed without notice. Unfair dismissal, by contrast, is based on the ideal that all employees should be treated fairly.
Fairness, in this respect, demands two enquiries to be made - the employer’s reason for the dismissal and whether the employer followed a fair procedure.
So, before reading on why don't you have a go at our unfair dismissal quiz, which asks some basic questions on dismissal then goes on to highlight some high-profile dismissals and what the results were.
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What's our first example?
In 2007, Matt Driscoll, a former sports reporter, was dismissed from the ‘News of the World’ (NOTW) for alleged incompetence. Driscoll, however, claimed that he had been subjected to a bullying campaign led by former NOTW editor, Andy Coulson.
At the hearing the employment tribunal noted: "Mr Coulson did not attend...to explain why he wanted the claimant dismissed."
The tribunal rejected the NOTW's claim, citing an email Coulson sent to his deputy in 2006, which stated that he wanted Driscoll "out as quickly and as cheaply as possible". Accepting that Driscoll had been bullied, the tribunal awarded him nearly £800,000 in compensation and, unusually, an additional £10,000 aggravated damages.
There are some reasons for dismissal that are automatically unfair, such as an employee being dismissed for exercising their 'statutory' (legal) rights. For instance, an employee taking maternity leave falls into this category, as does an employee making a public interest disclosure or ‘blowing the whistle’.
In a case that led to the arrests of numerous Olympus executives and raised serious concerns about Japanese corporate governance and transparency, Michael Woodford, the ex-chief executive of Olympus, sued for up to $60m compensation from the company.
Claiming damages for unfair dismissal, Woodford argued that he was fired with "no legal basis" after exposing an accounting scandal. Olympus later admitted the affair and settled with Woodford for an undisclosed sum.
Procedure is important
In a contrasting case that highlights the importance of an employer following a fair procedure when dismissing an employee, the chauffeur of a millionaire racehorse owner won an unfair dismissal case after he was fired - for giving a dog a bone.
Property tycoon Raymond Mould fired his chauffeur, Ivor James, with immediate effect during a 12-minute telephone call just two days after James fed a lamb bone to Mould's dog.
The judge noted that Mould neither consulted the housekeeper who witnessed the alleged misconduct nor conducted a thorough investigation into the incident.
Furthermore, Mould admitted that he had already decided to dismiss James before he made the telephone call to him. Consequently, the judge ruled that Mould did not act reasonably in dismissing James.
On a practical level, if you think you have been unfairly dismissed, it is advisable to attempt to resolve the problem with your employer in the first instance. If inappropriate or unsuccessful, you can appeal to an employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal, but must do so within three months of being dismissed.
Unfair dismissal is a 'statutory right' (that is, covered by an Act of Parliament). Under section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, an employee cannot bring an action unless they have one year's service; two years if they started employment on or after 6 April 2012.
Automatically unfair dismissal
However, this time period isn't relevant if the reason for dismissal is automatically unfair, in which case an employee can make an unfair dismissal claim irrespective of how long they have been employed.
In terms of the amount that can be claimed in an unfair dismissal action, 'damages' (or compensation) are based on an employee's loss of earnings as a result of their dismissal, up to a maximum of £72,300 for events that occurred on or after 1 February 2012. If a tribunal decides in favour of the employee, they will be awarded damages, which are intended to return them to the financial position they were in before dismissal.
Employers, follow the Code of Conduct!
Employers can avoid becoming the subject of an unfair dismissal claim by ensuring that their decision to dismiss the employee is within the range of reasonable responses. In addition, under the Employment Act 2002, employers must abide by their own discipline and grievance procedures. To further safeguard themselves against unfair dismissal actions, it is also recommended that employers adhere to the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) Code of Conduct.
If you believe you have been unfairly dismissed, or are an employer being taken to a tribunal, we can put you in touch with an expert employment solicitor who can help. Call us on 0800 1777 162 for more information.