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For a Few Dollars More

American school cafeteria worker, Ms. Dalene Bowden, was dismissed from Irving Middle School in Idaho last year after she gave away one hot meal to a 12 year old student worth $1.70 (£1.15). District policy states that students are allowed a bill of $11 (£7.50) before parents must pay the outstanding amount. Students who exceed the tab are supposed to be given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead. The hot lunch tray is then thrown away.

Ms Bowden said a supervisor placed her on leave after witnessing what she had done. She received a termination letter from the Pocatello School District which cited theft as the reason for her dismissal.

Ms. Bowden later said: “I was in the wrong, but what do you do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry and they don’t have any money?” She told the school that she would pay for the meal and that she loved her job but initially they stuck to their decision to dismiss.

After Ms. Bowden was dismissed from her role her story gained hundreds of comments on social media and a petition was then started to have her reinstated as lunch lady. The school eventually offered to reinstate her at the end of December.

The rules in the USA surrounding employment are different to those in the UK, but given the facts of the situation dismissal seems a harsh sanction to give.

An employer must follow a fair process when there is potential wrongdoing by an employee. The first step is to establish the facts. What has happened? Is there any evidence which supports concerns about wrongdoing? This may include witness statements. What does the employee have to say about it? You should speak to him as part of the investigation. The person doing the investigation will decide whether there is a case to answer. He should then recommend whether it is appropriate to deal with it formally or informally. If it goes to a formal discipline hearing the decision as to guilt will be made by a different person, the disciplining officer.

If there is a case to answer the employee may be invited to a formal meeting. The allegations should be set out clearly and all the evidence should be provided. This may include, but is not limited to; statements, emails, correspondence, meeting notes, CCTV and screenshots. The discipline meeting is the employee’s opportunity to discuss things, put his case forward and ask questions. The disciplining officer must decide on the balance of probabilities whether the employee is guilty.

In the above case there was evidence of wrong doing and Ms. Bowden admitted it herself. Before making any decision on the sanction to award you would be expected to consider mitigation. That includes co-operation and remorse. In this case Ms. Bowden said that she loves her job and offered to pay back the value of the child’s meal to correct what she had done wrong.

What is an appropriate sanction will depend on the facts of each case and any punishment should fit the crime. Ms Bowden gave away a meal for free. However, the value of that product was very little. Had she given away meals to a number of children over a period of time amounting to hundreds of pounds, things may be a bit different.

If your policy is to dismiss for every theft that occurs in your workplace, no matter how low the intrinsic value of the items taken, you must make that very clear and demonstrate that you have communicated it. You may take the view that theft is theft meriting summary dismissal whether it’s a Mars Bar or gold bar. The tribunals don’t necessarily agree and have been known to say that a dismissal is unfair if the value of the item is low.

Where a formal sanction is awarded an employee has the right of appeal.

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