An Employment Tribunal judgment published online on 22 February 2022 concerned an Iceland employee who was awarded £3,010 compensation for unfair dismissal after admitting to her employer that she had eaten a Twirl belonging to the company that she had not paid for.
On the face of it company stock is company stock and theft is theft. But the requirement in disciplinary processes for the employer to undertake as much investigation as is reasonable came into play here, and the dismissal was found to be unfair because the investigation was inadequate.
Unfair Dismissal | Background to the Case
The Claimant (employee) took the bar from an open multi-pack that had been left near the till. It was temporarily off the shelves because it was due to have the price reduced because it contained only three Twirls instead of four. After the Claimant had gone off shift the manager found that the multipack contained only one Twirl. The manager watched CCTV footage and found the Claimant had given one bar to the child of a customer and had eaten one herself.
The Claimant said that she believed the open packet to belong to a colleague and said that it was normal for staff to leave open packets of sweets at the till and for staff to eat each others’ sweets.
The Respondent (Iceland) argued that it was forbidden to eat or drink at the till and any staff purchases must have a receipt attached to prove that they had been paid for. They placed emphasis on the Claimant having admitted to eating at the till and eating a product for which she had neither had a receipt nor had seen one. However, the Claimant did not admit to having taken the Twirls knowing they were company stock.
The Tribunal made reference to the often-quoted 1980 case of British Home Stores v Burchell, which determines that for misconduct dismissals to be fair the employer must hold a genuine belief in the guilt of the employee, must have reasonable grounds on which to sustain that believe and must, at the time the belief was formed, have carried out as much investigation into the matter as was reasonable in the circumstances.
What the Tribunal found that the Respondent had failed to adequately investigate was whether there was merit in the Claimant’s case that she acted in the mistaken belief that the sweets belonged to a colleague. They did not look adequately into whether it was not uncommon for staff sweets to be left open at the checkout and for the staff to eat each other’s sweets. Had they done so, they might have concluded that it was reasonable for the Claimant to believe that the Twirls were not company property. In essence, they failed to carry out a reasonable investigation into the possibility that she was mistaken rather than dishonest.
Unfair Dismissal & Guidance for Employers
The case is a prime example that no matter how clearcut the facts and evidence seem to be, the employer always needs to consider that there may be a valid alternative explanation and be able to demonstrate later that any alternative narrative has been thoroughly investigated before a decision is reach on rejecting or accepting it.
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