How (not) to sack someone

14 09 2009

As an employer, if you want to avoid your name appearing in the Metro or any of the other free papers, try to avoid sacking employees suffering from cancer by email.  This is the moral from the recent report concerning Melinda Bolnar, a 27 year old teacher suffering from bowel cancer and who had just endured seven months of chemotherapy and given a 30% chance of survival.  According to the report it is alleged that her private school sacked her by email.  I should point out that the case is due to be heard at an Employment Tribunal later this year and the above report are merely the employee’s allegations against her employer and not the proven facts.

The report probably doesn’t give the whole story but it certainly gives the impression that Melinda was sacked without any form of disciplinary or capability procedure.  If that genuinely is the case the school might find themselves in difficulty when the case does reach the ET.

So (assuming that is what happened) what should an employer do if it wants to terminate the employment of an employee suffering from long-term illness?

The first and most important question is why should the employer want to terminate the employee’s employment?  This will be at the heart of any subsequent litigation that may arise.  The usual answer given by employers is that they could not afford to keep the position empty whilst the employee was away or that temporary cover could not be extended indefinitely.  Much will depend upon the role performed by the employee and the extent to which it is reasonable for the employer to reach the conclusion that dismissing the employee was reasonable in all the circumstances.  The size and resources of the business will be important too. What action might be reasonable for a small employer to take will be greatly different from a multi-national PLC or, for example, the NHS. How the employer treated other staff in similar circumstances on other occasions will be relevant: what are the contractual sick pay provisions, if any?

There are only a limited number of grounds on which dismissing an employee will be fair.  They include capability to do the job.  This can mean lack of ability of the employee to fulfil their role (i.e. incompetence) or it could include inability to do the job through sickness.  Problems can arise for an employer when the employee takes lots of short periods of time off sick (whether genuinely or otherwise) but when, as in the type of case under discussion here the employee is off for weeks or months.   

A prudent employer will properly investigate the reasons for the employee being absent and will try and establish when they might return.  This will need to be done with sensitivity and tact, which means good communications between employer-employee are going to be vital to make this work.  It will probably need medical evidence to be obtained and a well-drafted contract of employment should include a clause which allows the employer to send the employee to a doctor of its own choosing.  If the medical evidence suggests that the employee will be fit to return to work, even if on a gradually stepped basis at first, in a fairly short space of time, the business will need to think long and hard before dismissing.  On the other hand, if the absence looks like being lengthy then the employer may be justified in bringing the employment relationship to an end, provided it does so on grounds of (in)capability.

Where difficulties arise (as in Melinda Bolnar’s case) is where the employee feels there are other grounds for dismissal.  The Metro report states that she is suing for disability discrimination.  Much will depend, as usual, on who said or did what and when.  To avoid difficulties of this sort an employer needs to act clearly and openly about what it is doing and why. 

It needs to follow a proper process, as laid down by the ACAS Code of Practice introduced this April. In brief this means the employer investigating properly, inviting the employee to a meeting to discuss the issues, allowing them to be accompanied by a work colleague or Trade Union representative and to make their point.  Finally, the employee should be informed of their right to appeal the decision if it goes against them.  If the employer gets it wrong they can not only face a claim for unfair dismissal (with the potential for the award to be increased by up to 25% if they are deemed to have acted unreasonably) but also a claim for disability discrimination.  Claims under the DDA are not capped at the £66,200 maximum compensatory award, as with unfair dismissal cases.

Of course, all the above leaves aside the moral issue of whether it is the right step to take but and Courts/Tribunals don’t make judgments on moral grounds: the newspapers do that.

If you are an employer or employee requiring further advice on any of these issues, please get in touch with me at michaelscutt@dalelangley.co.uk or on 0207 464 8433

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