HR influence on disciplinary hearing

A recent case has considered whether an employee’s dismissal after an investigation heavily influenced by HR was unfair. The Claimant was dismissed for his conduct relating to his excessive claims for expenses. In order for a dismissal to be fair, it must be established that the employer believed the employee was guilty of misconduct and that belief was reasonable. The employer must also have carried out as much investigation as was reasonable in the circumstances when it formed that belief.

The disciplinary officer in Ramphal v Department for Transport firstly made a finding of misconduct and gave the Claimant a final warning. However, following six months of communication between HR and the disciplinary officer, he changed his mind on his findings and recommendations for a sanction. The overall view of culpability became one of gross negligence and the recommended sanction became summary dismissal for gross misconduct instead of a final written warning. The claimant was dismissed and brought a claim for unfair dismissal. The judge concluded that the investigation was reasonable and the decision to dismiss was within the band of reasonable responses and the disciplinary officer did not appear to be much influenced by the input of HR.

The Claimant appealed and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) allowed the appeal and set aside the decision, remitting the case back to the employment tribunal. The EAT referred to Chhabra v West London Mental Health NHS Trust which held that whilst it is acceptable for a case investigator to seek assistance from HR on questions of procedure, HR should not assist a case investigator in the presentation of a report. They concluded that as the disciplinary officer’s decision had changed so dramatically after intervention from HR, they had clearly involved themselves in issues of culpability, which should have been left for the disciplinary officer.

Comment by Head of Employment John Hassells:

HR’s role is best limited to procedural assistance. Decision-making is the preserve of the disciplinary officer not HR support. If the disciplinary allegations are potentially serious enough to justify summary dismissal, this should be made clear pre-disciplinary; everyone (including the disciplinary officer) will then be clear dismissal is a potential outcome.

If you’re unclear as to whether the offence could end in a fair dismissal, seek early legal advice. If your business needs advice preparing for a disciplinary situation or training your staff on these issues, please get in touch.