Sooner or later every HR practitioner is faced with the open and shut case.   A case where on the fact of it, the actions taken are so blatantly wrong that there seems little point  in taking a lot of time to decide what needs to be done.    Busy line managers can exert considerable pressure to come to a conclusion and move on.

The canny HR manager often uses employment law as a way of slowing things down and encouraging everyone to reflect.  It is much easier sometimes to say “the lawyers want us to do this” than it is to say “I think your decision may be flawed and misses some key data”.  I have had HR practitioners ring me and say “Give me a reason why we can’t make a decision today”.

When it comes to decisions on discipline and dismissal the employment law requirements for a good process are not that different to the classic good process for making a sound decision.   The problem is most of us are not good at making sound decisions – particularly when we are upset.

Managers, being  human are often keen to rush to a conclusion and by-pass any real decision making
process.   This can cost the organisation dearly – not only in legal terms – but in terms of losing individuals who might otherwise have benefited the organisation over the longer term.

Here are some open and shut cases.  

Before you click the link to find out how it turned out, ask yourself:  What would my managers do? 

What would I advise?

1. Seeing red

A customer complained that a waitress deliberately tipped a jug of iced-water into his lap and stormed off.   The waitress had only been employed  for six weeks.  When asked about the incident she agreed that is what she did.  Her line manager was anxious to ‘get rid’ saying she was obviously volatile.

2. A word to the wise

A retailer had half a dozen staff in each of three shops.  He was a very hands-on boss and knew all his staff quite well and saw them regularly.  He regularly opened and closed each of the shops and often worked alongside his staff during the day.

One of his staff had worked for him for a couple of years, and had been quite reliable and hard working.  He started getting into work late and seemed to have lost all interest in the job or getting in on time.  One day, the owner was standing by the door of the shop when the guy turned up 15 minutes late for his shift.   “What time do you call this?” said the boss. 

He was met with a mouthful of abuse in front of all the other staff at the shop.

3. To catch a thief

Our client had two warehouses at opposite ends of the country.  They carried similar stock, had similar staffing levels, and were in similar areas (from a demographic point of view), yet one warehouse had a shrinkage (theft) rate way above the others.

On a fairly regular basis, security would catch someone stealing an item or two.  They were interviewed and dismissed.   All the captured thieves said “everybody is doing it”   … but they would say that, wouldn’t they?

It is easy to blame employment law for having to ‘jump through hoops’ and go through tortuous and unnecessary processes.   But people decisions are very important decisions for the organisation, and for the individuals concerned.     Employment law places great stress on the decision making process (otherwise known as the investigatory and disciplinary process).   We shouldn’t need laws to make us go through a rounded decision making process,  but following employment law requirements can have that beneficial effect.     We can use employment law related decisions as a way of teaching better decision processes – to the benefit of the business in the round.   Or, as we often say, “let’s turn our lemons into lemonade”.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
Website :
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