Workplace investigations and disciplinary proceedings, if not conducted fairly, commonly have equally unfair results. That was certainly so in the case of a veteran train depot controller who was summarily dismissed after a locomotive hit the buffers.
Due to a failure in the radio system used by the depot’s staff to communicate with one another, the controller did not hear a colleague’s crucial message. As a result, he failed to stop a train that he was shunting before it struck the buffers, causing a safety risk and £25,000 in damage. Following a disciplinary hearing, he was found to have been grossly negligent and was dismissed without notice.
Ruling on his unfair dismissal claim, an Employment Tribunal (ET) acknowledged that the depot was a hazardous environment where safety measures were of primary importance. The employer genuinely believed that he was guilty of misconduct and had a potentially fair reason for dismissing him.
In upholding his claim, however, the ET found that the allegation was not reasonably investigated. Witnesses who had highly relevant evidence to give concerning longstanding problems with the radio system were never interviewed. Overall, the investigation was conducted with a closed mind and evidence that might have exculpated him was not sought.
The disciplinary hearing was unfair in that he was not provided with copies of the employer’s policies and procedures beforehand. He was not informed that he had a right to call witnesses. Having been forbidden from speaking to colleagues during a period of suspension, he could not ask them to testify in his defence. He was thereby placed in a disadvantageous and highly unfair position.
It was the employer’s case that he was distracted and not paying attention prior to the collision, yet evidence on that point was not sought from the only witness who could have spoken to his demeanour at the relevant time. Overall, the investigation and disciplinary procedure did not reflect either the equity of the case or the size and administrative resources available to the employer. Had fair procedures been adopted, he would have stood a 40 per cent chance of keeping his job.
In ruling that he had not contributed to his dismissal, the ET found that he would not have had reason to think that something was wrong until some seconds after the failed radio message. Thereafter, he had only about 16 seconds to react and he could not reasonably be said to have been negligent, let alone grossly so. His wrongful dismissal claim was also upheld. If not agreed, the amount of his compensation would be assessed at a further hearing.