The Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently published its judgement in the case of Renfrewshire Women's Aid v Lewis, which illustrates the importance of handling grievance and disciplinary processes carefully
RWA is a small charity at which Marie Lewis was employed for almost 20 years. In 2009, another employee alleged that Lewis and another member of staff had bullied and harassed her. After an investigation, RWA upheld the grievance. It decided that formal disciplinary action against Lewis was unwarranted, but she should give an apology, support and supervision arrangements should be reorganised and rescheduling of work arrangements should be considered.
Lewis was informed that, in accordance with RWA's grievance procedure, she could appeal, which she did. However, she was later told that she could not appeal because she did not raise the grievance.
RWA then wrote to Lewis saying that because she did not accept the findings of the investigation, formal disciplinary proceedings would begin. They were on the basis of three allegations: bullying of her colleague; unauthorised access of work emails at home; and breach of confidence. Two of the three members of the disciplinary panel had given evidence against Lewis during the grievance procedure. The panel found that Lewis was guilty of gross misconduct and was dismissed.
Lewis appealed. RWA did not adhere to its appeal procedure in that, prior to the hearing, a meeting took place between the appeal panel and members of the disciplinary panel. Lewis was not informed of that meeting and no member of the disciplinary panel was present at the appeal hearing. Her appeal was unsuccessful.
The legal decisions
Lewis brought a claim for unfair dismissal, which was upheld by the Employment Tribunal. It found that, having already decided the bullying issue did not warrant disciplinary action, RWA should not have reverted to the disciplinary procedure on that issue and the conduct in question was not gross misconduct.
It also found that accessing emails from home and the breach of confidence allegation did not warrant a dismissal for gross misconduct. She should also have been given the right to appeal against the grievance decision, the tribunal found.
It found that dismissal was not within the "band of reasonable responses" and that the procedure was unfair. Lewis was awarded £42,104.
RWA appealed, but the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld the original decision.
Lessons for charities
Grievances should be dealt with carefully. Grievance and disciplinary procedures should follow the relevant Acas code and be kept as straightforward as possible to minimise the risk of inadvertent breaches. If grievance and disciplinary matters address the same issue, they should be handled by different people to avoid bias.
Charities should also ensure that rules are set out in writing and if breach of those rules would be considered to be gross misconduct, this should be clearly stated.
Victoria Willson, is a partner at Levenes Employment, third sector specialists