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Get the Basics Right: Poor Communication leads to Unfair Dismissal
A tribunal has ruled that an assistant store manager at a Poundland store who lost his job for handing out free items to customers was unfairly dismissed as a result of poor communication by the employer and a lack of a clear disciplinary process.

Mr Zia was sacked by Poundland for misusing a button on till points that allowed staff to give customers free items in the event of a complaint or damaged goods being returned. The company claimed he had breached Poundland policies by using the tool excessively during his time at a west London branch.

He worked for the business from June 2013 until his dismissal in 2016. He complained to the Watford Employment Tribunal that he had been unfairly dismissed.

The tribunal found that Poundland’s written policy around the use of the free item button and broader employee misconduct were limited. Zia said he was trained to use the button by two store managers, who told him he was permitted to donate items to charities, community groups and police officers, and to encourage customers to buy more products by offering them free items.

The tribunal heard that Zia was responsible for handing out free items worth £312.65 between 1 January and 13 May 2016. By contrast, his store manager gave away only £1 during the same period, and other individual colleagues less than £70. In May, Poundland’s area sales manager, Steven Perkins, opened an investigation into Zia’s conduct.

Poundland claimed the button was no longer in use during the period Zia gave away the items, but Zia and his colleagues testified that none of them had been told it had been discontinued. He also offered to repay the money.

Unfortunately Perkins did not complete a written report based on his investigations; instead he escalated the matter to a disciplinary hearing. Perkins said during evidence to the tribunal that he must have informed Poundland’s HR team about the matter, which he thought might have taken the form of an email, although this was not produced for the Tribunal.

A letter was then sent to Zia, drafted by the HR team in Perkins’ name, inviting him to a disciplinary hearing. Investigating officer Mr Jaria held the hearing on 4 July 2016, notes from which were “difficult to read”, according to the judge. During the hearing, Zia said he had given the free items as gestures of goodwill, while Jaria concluded the “only reasonable outcome to this process to be summary dismissal”.

Zia lodged an appeal the same day, but an appeal meeting did not take place until nearly 4 months later, where he raised concerns including the fact that he had been trained to use the free item button. The appeals officer said that Poundland’s business managers had been told to stop using the free item button and this information was cascaded to staff. Zia’s dismissal was subsequently confirmed.

The Employment Tribunal Judge agreed that Zia’s dismissal was procedurally unfair and outside the band of reasonable responses open to an employer, particularly because of his clean disciplinary record and reputation for honesty, the judge also said Poundland ‘s investigation contained a number of failings. He said, “Poundland has no one to blame but itself for the very poor methods of communication. [Poundland] needed to be clear about what the misconduct was. The evidence on how or when [the free item button] was stopped is opaque and inconsistent,” said Judge Manley. He added that Poundland had nothing in writing explaining what constituted misconduct and gross misconduct, and found Jaria’s evidence “surprising” because it indicated a clear lack of training for disciplinary managers.

Although this is just an Employment Tribunal hearing and therefore not binding on other cases, it clearly reinforces the need to ensure that the basic principles of managing disciplinary cases are followed, including the production of proper documented evidence and meeting notes. Employers also need to be aware that dismissal is not the only option and that separate consideration of sanctions should be recorded.
Posted on 22 Jan 2018

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