The Employment Appeals Tribunal (the EAT) has directed a technology company to pay €148,000 in compensation to its former HR Manager*. The claimant was dismissed for misconduct as the employer company said that she had committed a gross breach of trust by sharing sensitive information with members of staff about certain financial matters.
The EAT found that the company's concern about the release of sensitive information relating to pending redundancies never materialised. The claimant said that the dismissal was flawed from a procedural point of view as there was a dispute as to whether she was actually suspended or dismissed on a particular date. The claimant was also of the view that the company dismissed her because it was known that she was trying to become pregnant. She said that the alleged reasons for the dismissal were ultimately a "sham" designed to cover a dismissal that would have been better than a redundancy.
The EAT looked closely at the provisions of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977. The Act states that the dismissal of an employee shall be deemed to be an unfair dismissal unless there are substantial grounds justifying the dismissal. One of the substantial grounds is conduct. Having reviewed the evidence and the circumstances surrounding the conversation in question, the EAT was of the view that the claimant's conduct was at most "indiscreet" and more in the nature of "idle chitchat". The EAT held that the dismissal was unfair.
The case demonstrates that for an employer to succeed in proving a fair dismissal on the grounds of misconduct, the sanction of dismissal must be a proportionate response to the misconduct in question. If appropriate, other less drastic penalties, such as warnings etc should be considered in advance. Here the EAT felt that the claimant's indiscretion was something which could have been corrected with a warning. Instead the employer company proceeded to apply the most severe sanction of all i.e. dismissal. It was viewed by the Tribunal to be grossly disproportionate to the conduct in question and as a result the respondent company found itself being penalised with a direction to pay €148,000 in compensation.
* Lorraine Fitzpatrick v Emuse Technologies, Columbia Mills UD 316/2009