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What Do You Do With a Problem Like Maria (aka Luis Suarez)?

During the World Cup last week, it appears that Uruguay striker Luis Suarez bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini. Mr Suarez has now been found guilty of biting three different opponents since 2010. He is not allowed to play in the next nine international games and has been banned from all football activities for the next four months, including the entering of any stadiums. He has also been fined over £65,500.

Uruguay is in an uproar over the ban and I understand that Mr Chiellini himself has said that the sanction is too harsh. It’s an extraordinary response, but for what it’s worth I disagree. Profoundly. If Mr Suarez wasn’t an international footballer, but common and garden Joe Bloggs, biting a colleague would be treated as gross misconduct, meriting summary dismissal. Can you imagine the upheaval in the accounts department, warehouse or transport office if one member of staff leaned forward and lightly nipped a colleague’s shoulder? The ensuing row just doesn’t bear thinking about. Anyone who did that would probably be prosecuted for assault too. However, each case will turn on its own facts. While some forms of work will inevitably involve contact of some type, there is a marked difference between involuntary accidental bashing into each other from time to time and deliberately sinking teeth into another person. (I shall exercise considerable control and refrain from any vampire jokes here.)

If you do have the misfortune to have to deal with an assault at work, start by carrying out a full investigation. Ask the employee who has allegedly carried out the assault about the incident and make full notes. This is not a formal meeting so unless your discipline procedure says otherwise, the employee does not have the right to be accompanied. Take witness statements if possible. This can include information taken from recording like CCTV or vehicle tracking. Your discipline procedure should include the right to do so. In this particular football incident there was also video evidence as to what happened and Mr Chiellini clearly had teeth marks on his shoulder. Decide whether there is a case to answer. If there is write to set up the discipline hearing. Note it is not the role of the investigating officer to determine guilt, just to determine whether on a balance of probabilities there is a case to answer.

Invite the employee to a disciplinary hearing which should be heard by someone who has not yet been involved in the case. This meeting is formal so the employee has the right to be accompanied by a work colleague or an accredited trade union representative. The disciplining officer should examine to the findings of the investigating officer and hear the employee’s version of events. Witnesses may also be called forward.

Before making a decision the disciplining officer should consider all the facts carefully, and consider mitigation; possibly in the case of Mr Suarez there may have been provocation by Mr Chiellini. Take any previous warnings or sanctions that are still live into account. If an employee already has a live warning or a poor track record the outcome will be more severe than if he had a clean record. Take a look at any similar events that have happened in the past, what was the outcome. Also look at company policies, acts of violence are often considered to be gross misconduct. Any sanction given to the employee should be confirmed in writing, and notification of the right to appeal given.

Having committed offences of (what I believe to be) gross misconduct for violence three times in four years, Mr Suarez has got off pretty lightly receiving a ban and a fine. In my view he is a liability and if he cannot conduct himself appropriately he should go.

So having Mr Suarez on your team is a high risk strategy and you might think that his career might be damaged by this incident. But the papers suggest that he has received a lucrative offer from Barcelona. What sort of message does that send? It’s a crazy old world.

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