The Employment Appeals Tribunal has ruled in favour of an employer in a highly-publicised case in which a former employee who resigned from her position, took a claim of constructive dismissal against the company.
In the recent determination of Barry v Quinn Insurance Limited UD1775/2010, the Tribunal found that the former employee did not act reasonably in resigning as she did not appeal the outcome of an investigation of a bullying and harassment complaint brought by her.
The claimant alleged that within weeks of commencing her employment as a claims co-ordinator in March 2008, she encountered difficulties with one of her team members who was employed as a regional claims controller. The claimant outlined that the team member acted in a harsh and ignorant manner towards her, which left her feeling isolated and led to panic attacks. When the claimant reported the matter to Human Resources (HR), she felt they did not treat her complaint seriously. However, the claimant was reassigned to a new section in March 2009.
In April 2009, the claimant attended her doctor who certified her as medically unfit for work. She then notified HR of the reasons for her absence and the issues she had encountered in the workplace. HR offered her medical assistance and advised that the matter could be formally investigated and dealt with under the company’s grievance procedure. Over a protracted period, while the claimant remained on sick leave, formal grievances were made in writing and an investigation was carried out. Prior to the conclusion of the investigation, the claimant was offered the option of returning to work to a different role, returning to work and continuing with the grievance procedure or making further visits to the occupational therapist. However, none of these were accepted. In November 2009, the investigation concluded that there was no evidence of bullying and harassment. The claimant was reminded of the alternatives and provided with a right to appeal the decision.
After receiving no response from the claimant, HR wrote to her in January 2010 asking her to respond to their correspondence otherwise they would assume that she wished to terminate her employment contract. The claimant eventually resigned from her position the following month and subsequently took a claim of constructive dismissal.
In its determination, the Tribunal outlined that an employee is entitled to terminate the contract only when the employer is guilty of conduct that amounts to a significant breach going to the root of the contract or shows that the employer no longer intends to be bound by one or more of the essential terms of the contract. A reasonableness test is applied that asks whether an employer conducts their affairs so unreasonably that the employee cannot fairly be expected to tolerate it any longer and justifies the employee leaving. Also, if the changing nature of the tasks for which an employee was employed constitutes a repudiation of the contract of employment then a repudiatory breach would occur and a resignation may be considered an unfair dismissal by virtue of constructive dismissal.
The Tribunal determined that the facts of this case did not amount to such a breach of contract to the extent that the employee was left with no reasonable alternative but to leave. It also said the claimant did not produce sufficient and adequate evidence that the employer dismissed her even in a constructive fashion. The Tribunal noted that the regional claims controller’s manner and strong language used was unacceptable, but in itself was not sufficient reason for the claimant to resign. The claimant did not appeal the outcome of the company’s decision in relation to her complaint of bullying and harassment. Except in very limited situations an employee must exhaust all avenues for dealing with their grievances before resigning. The claimant’s resignation was deemed unreasonable by the Tribunal and her claim under the Unfair Dismissals Acts, 1977 to 2007 failed.