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An Apple a Day Keeps the Job Away

Setting workplace rules and standards are important for a variety of reasons. People need to know what’s expected of them and what the consequences of breach will be. The best companies make their expectations clear from the outset, with such standards being realistic and reasonable. They need to be applied in a reasonable way too. The recent case of Carr v Smile by Smile is an example of how companies can be a bit too vigorous.

Rachel Carr had worked as a receptionist at Smile by Smile dental surgery in the West Midlands for five years. She left and successfully claimed constructive unfair dismissal after the company gave her a final warning for a variety of fairly minor breaches. These included:

  • eating an apple at her desk;
  • using Facebook during her working hours;
  • using her personal mobile phone at work;
  • “hiding” in a sterilisation room;
  • packing her bag too early before the end of her shift.

The practice alleges that it had concerns about Ms Carr’s ability to follow procedures after she had also forgotten to turn off the X-ray machine.

I expect you’re starting to get a picture. Reading between the lines Ms Carr may have been a less-than-ideal employee who caused a number of small irritations. When the opportunity arose the employer took disciplinary action (which is fine) and gave her an unduly harsh sanction (which is not).

In presenting her case, Ms Carr said that the apple was cut up into small pieces and placed in a beaker and she took a piece from time to time. She also said that one of the partners used to eat Cadbury mini-eggs in reception. If the rule is not to eat in reception, it doesn’t matter whether it’s chocolate or an apple. But unless the company’s rules made it clear that this was gross misconduct and liable to summary dismissal (which I doubt),then awarding a final warning is absurd.

It’s important that such rules are reasonable in the circumstances. Having a clear set of terms and conditions and employee handbook (if appropriate) helps you to lay out your most important rules and standards concisely, whilst ensuring that there is everything in there to protect your back from claims arising as far as possible.

If eating on the job is such a problem in your line of work or industry, then it’s important that you state your rules in writing (provided that the requirement is reasonable in the circumstances).

It is important to clamp down on any improper behaviour, but always err on the side of caution when it comes to sanctions. This was all minor stuff, even if there were several points. In most cases unless it’s serious or gross misconduct it’s sensible to provide informal but noted guidance to employees before taking formal action. In many cases that would nip the problem in the bud. If it doesn’t, you can then start the formal process and the employee would be aware that this is what would follow in the absence of a full meeting and maintain of company standards.

If employment law in general (or discipline in particular) is giving you a headache, and you’d like some advice on the right way to deal with an issue in your organisation, then get in touch. We’ll guide you in the right direction.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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