Employers should think twice before dismissing an employee that they believe they have the reasonable right to do so. In a recent decision, the Tate gallery in London was ordered to pay its former employee Ms Anne Taylor , damages as it was held that they had failed to properly investigate her claims of bullying and harassment.
The case highlights the need for proper procedures to be in place and the necessity of them to be followed at all times. Whilst the gallery clearly believed that they were within their rights to dismiss Ms Taylor, and to an extent the court recognised that they were, they could have avoided paying her damages had they investigated her claims and launched a genuine investigation into her accusations of harassment.
It was acknowledged by the court that Ms Taylor was not wholly innocent in her actions and it was for this reason that her damages were reduced since she had contributed to her dismissal. Ms Taylor was dismissed because witnesses had seen her acting “inappropriately” whilst on duty, for example, spending prolonged periods of time away from her post chatting and showing photographs to colleagues. She was also generally rude to her superiors.
The manager spoke to her about it before another manager investigated her. Mrs Taylor was later suspended and then dismissed in December 2010. Although the above may have constituted valid reasons for her eventual dismissal, an employer should be careful to ensure that such instances are compounded enough, with enough prior warning given in the form of, for example, verbal and or written warnings, to be viewed as a valid dismissal procedure and assessment of bullying or harassment.
Ms Taylor was awarded damages for unfair dismissal and harassment induced by her having been reprimanded in public and “talked down to”. London Central Employment Tribunal's Judge Lewzey decided the Tate did not follow a fair procedure when examining accusations of mistreatment. She claimed that these instances, which she felt amounted to being treat as though she was a criminal, had left her feeling so anxious and unwell that she was no longer employable. This claim perhaps carried more weight in respect of her age (61years old). Ms Taylor's claims that the dismissal had been age related were denied by the gallery who say they employ a range of ages.
Employers are advised to have an anti-harassment policy in place and to take positive action to eliminate employee behaviour that could cause distress and anxiety to others in the workplace. ACAS publish guidance for both employers and employees relating to bullying and harassment in the workplace. Employers should be careful not to forget their liability in relation to bullying or harassment of their staff in the course of their employment, particularly if those instances lead to constructive dismissal. It is prudent therefore, for all employers to have a plan in place to investigate such matters and to ensure they do so if connected with the dismissal of an employee.