The Employment Tribunal's judgment in the case of Farnaud vs Dr Hadwen Trust Ltd provides a reminder of the legal tests in misconduct dismissals.
The Dr Hadwen Trust is a charity that promotes alternatives to using animals in bio-medical research and testing. It employed Dr Sebastien Farnaud as its science and education director for three years. Before his dismissal, he had an exemplary disciplinary record.
On 27 September 2011 a heated exchange occurred between Farnaud and the chief executive, Mrs Kailah Eglington, to whom he reported. Staff heard Farnaud raising his voice. One described seeing Eglington in distress when she entered the office, although another said he heard laughter coming from her office. Another meeting between Farnaud and Eglington occurred the following day with no apparent ill feeling.
Eglington raised a grievance with Isabelle Gladstone, chair of the trustees, regarding Farnaud's behaviour, saying it left her feeling "physically shaking, sick and frightened". He was suspended and called to a disciplinary hearing for "allegations of bullying, verbal abuse and aggressive behaviour". Farnaud accepted raising his voice but denied aggressive or threatening behaviour. Gladstone found him guilty of such behaviour and dismissed him for gross misconduct. Farnaud's appeal was heard by a trustee, Natasha Cornick, but was unsuccessful. Farnaud brought a claim of unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal.
The legal decision
The tribunal found the trust's investigation was incompetently conducted and there was no evidence Farnaud behaved in an abusive or threatening manner. It cited the failure to obtain Eglington's response to Farnaud's version of events, including the meeting the following day, Gladstone's apparent predetermined view regarding his guilt, evidenced by an email she sent prior to the disciplinary in which she described his behaviour as "totally unacceptable", and the taking of statements by Eglington, which put pressure on witnesses.
The tribunal was critical of the handling of Farnaud's appeal, citing Cornick's failure to read all the relevant documents before the hearing or to consider interviewing Eglington and Gladstone.
The tribunal concluded the trust had failed to demonstrate a reasonable belief that Farnaud was guilty of gross misconduct, or to conduct a reasonable investigation, rendering his dismissal substantively and procedurally unfair. It awarded Farnaud more than £18,000 after a deduction of 25 per cent for contributory fault based on his admitted conduct during the incident.
Lessons for charities
To establish the fairness of a misconduct dismissal, charities must satisfy the tribunal they had a belief that misconduct had occurred, having carried out an investigation, and that dismissal was within the range of responses.
This case highlights in particular the importance of conducting a thorough investigation and keeping an open mind about the outcome of any disciplinary proceedings to avoid suggestions of predetermination.
Victoria Willson, a partner at Levenes Employment, third sector specialists