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Dismissal: Fair dismissal arising from a breakdown in working relationships, despite absence of a written warning and offer of appeal

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By Ceri Fuller, Hilary Larter, & Joanne Bell


Published 16 May 2024


In this case the EAT upheld a tribunal's decision that an employer did not act unfairly when it dismissed a senior employee for some other substantial reason, without a formal procedure or an appeal.


The Facts

Guy Matthews was a director and consulting expert in a global technology company. He worked in its emerging technology team. Mr Matthews had a good relationship with his line manager until early 2020, when he felt he was receiving less communication and support from him. He then developed Covid symptoms and ultimately developed Long Covid which was found to be a disability. He was off sick for several months, during which time the employer decided to discontinue pursuing 5G opportunities, which had been Mr Matthew's main area of focus. The employer began a redundancy process and informed Mr Matthews that he was at risk of redundancy, but he refused to engage in any consultation meetings as he was unwell and believed the redundancy was a sham.

Mr Matthews raised a grievance against his line manager, alleging that he had undermined and scapegoated him for the decision to discontinue 5G initiatives and that his redundancy had been fabricated. He also claimed that the decision to put him at risk of redundancy was a cover for sex discrimination in relation to a redundancy of a female colleague.

The grievance was partly upheld on appeal, finding that as part of the redundancy process the employer had not adequately considered Mr Matthews' other skills and experience beyond 5G when placing him at risk of redundancy. However, Mr Matthews was not satisfied with the outcome of his grievance and demanded that his line manager be penalised and that he be given assurances that he would not be treated unfavourably. He also indicated that he was planning to bring further grievances, complaints to the ethics team and legal action against the employer.

The employer appointed a senior individual within the organisation to work with for Mr Matthews in order to try to find a way he could return to work after his sickness absence and the lack of any 5G projects. After discussions Mr Matthews was offered two options: to remain in his team reporting to his manager, or to move to a new role in another team that was created specifically for him reporting to a new line manager. Mr Matthews did not agree with either option and set various conditions that were not acceptable to his employer, such as not being held accountable for any financial targets, nor committing to a job description. He also maintained his allegations and threats against his line manager and other colleagues and against the employer more widely.

After two months Mr Matthews was asked to commit to one of the two options offered to him, otherwise he would be moved into the new role created for him. During this time he continued to make allegations of harassment, discrimination and whistleblowing against his line manager and threatened to bring legal action and complaints to the employer's ethics team. He rejected both options as being untenable and maintained he was having to act under duress.

Six months after he had returned to work and eight months after he had originally been placed at risk of redundancy, the employer decided that the relationship of trust and confidence had been destroyed and decided that any further HR processes would be futile. Concluding that any further interaction with Mr Matthews was futile and would only exacerbate the dispute, the employer dismissed him without warning and did not offer an appeal.

Mr Matthews brought claims of unfair dismissal, victimisation, automatic unfair dismissal for whistleblowing and failure to make reasonable adjustments. The ET dismissed all his claims, finding that the employer had acted reasonably in treating the breakdown of the relationship as a sufficient reason for dismissal and that there was no evidence that any of the alleged protected acts or disclosures had any influence on the decision. The EAT agreed with the ET's approach and rejected the appeal on all six grounds, agreeing with the ET that this was a rare case where a dismissal without procedure was fair.


What this means for employers

This case illustrates that there may be exceptional circumstances where an employer can dispense with a formal procedure before dismissing an employee or an appeal where there has been an irretrievable breakdown of trust and confidence. Both Tribunals agreed these cases are "unusual and rare". The employer devoted significant management time to dealing with Mr Matthews; devoting a senior officer to try to resolve the impasse through discussion with Mr Matthews, consideration of mediation and a careful review of redeployment opportunities, including the creation of a bespoke role. The most senior person within the employer's UK business took the decision to dismiss.

Dismissals without procedure invite close scrutiny of the employer's decision making. An employer finding itself in similar circumstances should also carefully consider before dismissal whether an employee has raised a protected disclosure such that they may be a whistle blower and/or has made a complaint about discriminatory treatment. Although both discrimination and whistle blowing arguments were made in this case, neither succeeded.

Guy Matthews v CGI IT UK LTD 2024