Every morning I get the Times on my iPad. By the time I’ve eaten my breakfast, I’ve read the Sport section and can then use my train journey to look at the rest without having to master the “commuter fold”. Usually the Times tends towards a sombre recording of events, reporting even the most salacious stories in the sort of faintly disapproving tone that reminds you of a prep school teacher faced with a joke he should not find remotely funny but actually does. However, last week, one headline caught my eye – “Suspension the bottom line for manager accused of bite”.
This headline (changed later in the online version to “Female Council boss suspended ‘for biting male worker’s bottom’ ” – what did I say about the Times’ tone?) led off with the paragraph “A woman council manager has been suspended after claims that she bit a male colleague’s bottom so hard that he bled. The incident…was said to be one of a series of office pranks that got out of hand.” Out of hand? Surely not. The article then proffered the information that the male employee had been taken to hospital for a tetanus jab “as a precaution”, presumably against the manager being rabid not just behaviourally but also medically.
Aside from a few cheap laughs at the poor victim’s expense, what does this incident have to do with employment law? Well, you may question why the manager was only suspended, as opposed to immediately sacked. The bottom line is that it is always important for employers to ensure that they have the full facts before acting. If the employer had been over-zealous, taken the bit between its teeth and simply sacked the manager without an investigation, this may not have been fair and the employee may have had a claim for unfair dismissal, particularly given the history of lesser pranks in the department seemingly going unpunished.
So, how to avoid ending up as a newspaper headline? Firstly, have a robust handbook and policies in place – having fun at work is fine, but employees should know where the line is. That said, it is hard to believe that a Tribunal would be too hard on an employer which had inexplicably omitted reference to biting your colleagues as unacceptable behaviour. Secondly, enforce that handbook and those policies – it’s no good having a policy that looks great on paper but which is never enforced in practice, as you will not be able to rely upon it when you need to. Thirdly, remember that the test for whether or not a dismissal is fair requires you to conduct a reasonable investigation – in this case, that may simply be asking witnesses “Did the manager bite her employee on the bottom?” (and as a last resort, “If she didn’t, who did?”). [I am assuming here that the existence of the injury was taken as read without the need for inspection]. Finally, if you ever have to ask that question (do try not to laugh when doing so) and the answer is “yes”, then it’s probably fair to consider dismissal as a likely sanction. The point is simply that however obvious the grounds appear to be, you cannot simply leap to that point. The manager’s defence in this case would have to be a thing of beauty indeed – provocation? self-defence? automatism? – but she must still be given the chance to run it before a final decision is seen to be made.