Five Grievances Don’t Make A (Dismissal) Right

A recent case in the UK Employment Appeals Tribunal Woodhouse v. West North West Homes Leeds Limited UK EAT/0007(12) has looked at whether it is possible to fairly dismiss an employee who has raised repeated grievances, on the basis that the relationship with the employer has irretrievably broken down.

It is relatively common in the UK for employees to use the internal grievance process as a means of stalling disciplinary action being taken against them or purely to raise constant complaints to their employer, forcing the employer to spend (often disproportionate) time taking the employee through the formal process. This can involve employers in tremendous amounts of time and resource, not to mention personal angst for all involved. The problem with not dealing formally with such grievances (even when they are clearly a smokescreen) is that they often raise questions of discrimination or whistleblowing and therefore if left unaddressed, can lead to significant claims in the Employment Tribunal. Failure to follow a proper grievance process can also lead to a punitive 25% increase in any resulting damages.

In this case, Mr. Woodhouse raised ten grievances between 2005 and 2010, mostly relating to race discrimination. All of the grievances were dealt with and rejected—no doubt taking up enormous amounts of time and resource in the process and causing irreparable damage to working relationships. Within the same time frame, Mr Woodhouse also lodged nine separate claims in the Employment Tribunal making allegations of race discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

After five very trying years, Mr. Woodhouse’s employer eventually dismissed him, due to an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship.

From an outside view, this does look like a clear case of a broken relationship if ever there was one and would seem a logical and fair reason for dismissal. After all, how can you continue to work effectively with someone quite so committed to complaining and opposed to their employer? The Employment Tribunal agreed and held the dismissal to be fair. However, on appeal, the EAT held that it was not in fact possible to separate the reason for the dismissal (the irretrievable breakdown) from the protected acts (the claims of discrimination, harassment and victimisation), regardless of whether there was any merit in them. Furthermore, the employer’s suggestion that Mr. Woodhouse would inevitably raise future grievances therefore could not be a fair reason for dismissal in the present.

This decision seems to fly in the face of business reality and will be disappointing for employers who face similar behaviour from disgruntled employees but the take-away from this case is to ensure that, as far as possible, any grievances are dealt with and any reason for dismissal is genuinely separable (to the extent possible) from any protected acts raised by the employee.