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Dismissal for breach of confidentiality found to be unfair

Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

If an employee commits an act which is explicitly classified as gross misconduct in an employer’s  policy, will it invariably follow that a decision to dismiss will be deemed fair?  Not in the case of Stimpson v Citibank N.A.

Mr Stimpson had been a forex trader with Citibank N.A. (Citi) in its EMEA G10 foreign exchange trading business based in London since 1989. As part of the objectives set in his annual appraisals of 2009 and 2010 he was encouraged by his manager to join online chat rooms in an attempt to gain better market information. Accordingly he began to engage with other industry members in a Bloomberg chatroom. 

As Bloomberg chatrooms were a relatively new phenomenon in 2010 no guidance was provided to employees by Citi as to what information was to be shared.  It was not until 2013 that Citi became concerned about improper use and issued a specific instruction to their traders to stop sharing information in chatrooms. In 2014 the Financial Conduct Authority undertook an independent regulatory investigation into the foreign exchange business as a whole and Citi conducted their own review internally.  As part of this process, Mr Stimpson, like many of his peers, was invited to attend a ‘fact finding’ interview.

In March 2014 Mr Stimpson was suspended. The allegation against him was that he had divulged confidential information in the Bloomberg chatrooms and this was explicitly prohibited in the code of conduct as set out in the employee handbook.

At the disciplinary hearing, Mr Stimpson defended himself by arguing that there had been no guidance issued as to what could be shared; he did not believe himself to be bound by the confidentiality rules in respect of some clients as their activities were in the public domain.  Additionally, he identified two examples in which managers appeared to condone the sharing of confidential client information between traders at different banks.

Citi dismissed Stimpson for serious breach of confidentiality.  Stimpson appealed the decision citing inadequate investigation as one of his grounds. However the claims were not investigated again at appeal stage and the decision to dismiss was upheld.

When the case was considered by the employment tribunal, the tribunal ruled in favour of Stimpson. It was the tribunal’s view that the bank had erred in seeking to rely on a strict reading of its policies as a reason to dismiss and had adopted a blinkered view, failing to conduct an adequate investigation into how they translated into the culture of the workplace.

This case serves as a reminder to employers that they need to ensure that their strict rules as laid out in their policies are being applied in the workplace, or reliance on the policy alone may be considered insufficient.

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