Earlier this month, the Employment Appeal Tribunal considered whether there is a legal requirement to have a separate investigatory hearing before dismissing an employee.
In the case of Goddard v Sunshine Hotel Ltd T/a Palm Court Hotel, Mr Goddard was dismissed by his employer for sleeping whilst on duty. Initially, Mr Goddard was suspended whilst the employer carried out what they described as an investigation, involving two members of staff (neither of which being Mr Goddard) sitting down to watch CCTV of the alleged misconduct. He was then invited to an investigatory hearing by his employer and was informed that if there was any substance to the allegations, there would be a separate disciplinary hearing. However, this meeting was converted to a disciplinary hearing and Mr Goddard was dismissed. The employment tribunal held that this dismissal was procedurally unfair, as there had been a lack of proper investigation and a lack of opportunity for Mr Goddard to prepare for a disciplinary hearing.
The employer appealed this decision on the basis that there is no legal requirement for an employer to hold a separate investigatory hearing before a disciplinary hearing. The Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed, clarifying that there does not have to be a separate investigatory hearing and a disciplinary hearing in every case, however, the employer must investigate the matter to a standard that is reasonable in all circumstances of the case Nevertheless, due to a number of procedural flaws in this case, the original tribunal decision for unfair dismissal was upheld.
This decision reinforces that, whilst employers need not conduct separate investigatory hearings, it remains essential that employers carry out proper investigations and give employees notice of the allegations they face in order that they can prepare for disciplinary hearings. In the vast majority of cases, this will involve holding an initial investigation meeting for the purposes of fact-finding with the accused employee. Additionally, this judgment serves as a reminder that employers may not turn an investigatory hearing into a disciplinary hearing under any circumstances, even if an admission of guilt is made by the employee.
Employers should note that, despite there being no legal requirement to conduct investigatory hearings, this requirement may be imposed through the employer’s own disciplinary policy, employment contracts or a collective agreement with a trade union. Failing to cooperate with established disciplinary practices may expose an employer to claims of unfair dismissal, the damages for which can be extensive.