What do you need to know about whistleblowing at work?
A recent case brought against sandwich giant franchisee Subway has highlighted how employers need to be aware of whistleblowing legislation and how this employee protection can be triggered.
In this case, a lack of management training and understanding triggered the legislative protection and could have been avoided had the manager in question delivered the correct and appropriate responses to raised concerns.
An employee with severe allergies raised concerns related to food hygiene practices. RT Management Bridgeton owned the franchise store and was aware of the employee’s health concerns from the commencement of employment. The employee not only completed a medical assessment, declaring allergies, but also carried an epi-pen and was in the process of having further medical investigations related to other health concerns.
The employee raised several concerns about how the medical assessment did not allow for new information or conditions under investigation. The employee was told that the medical assessment declaration could only contain information about confirmed conditions.
The critical component in the case was as a result of the actions of a manager within the franchised operation, who was described as acting with hostility towards the employee when raising concerns about food hygiene process and practices. Allegations were made that the manager encouraged the employee to eat known allergens, stating: “Go on, what’s the worst that could happen?”.
The employee also raised specific concerns about the lack of action around Covid-19 and felt the business was not taking adequate steps to minimise risk. For example, the employee raised concerns that no signage had been put in place and a failure around the use of face masks or social distancing. The employee made several observations to her manager about internal practices and felt that the manager’s response was hostile. It was alleged that over the employment relationship the manager made several disparaging comments about the employee’s personal appearance including negative comments around her having to seek further medical investigations and medical help for allergies. There were also allegations that the manager made derogatory comments around her vegan preference including actively encouraging her to eat and handle meat.
In addition to personal comments made, she complained about the lack of ethics displayed when following vegan practices including an incident whereby a customer who had ordered a vegan sandwich had been given dairy cheese. The employee highlighted the ethical problem with serving a vegan customer dairy products unknowingly but also the potential hazard of allergy risk to a customer who specifically ordered a vegan sandwich.
A further concern was raised around a lack of sanitary facilities in the one and only toilet on the premises. When she raised the issue with her manager, he told her she was “the only female of menstruating age who used the toilet” and that she should dispose of the sanitary products in the kitchen bin.
The main issue was the manager’s refusal to consider or rectify any of the raised concerns and as a result the employee reported the franchise to environmental health who promptly visited the premises on receipt of the complaint. The complaint was raised on an anonymous basis, but the manager concluded that the employee was the one who raised the formal complaint.
The employee claimed that she was treated unfairly in employment due to the complaints raised including a deduction of wages that was never resolved. Ultimately her employment was terminated during her probationary period.
The employee brought a claim for automatic unfair dismissal which does not require a two-year service period. The employee alleged that her termination was a direct result of her raising health and safety concerns.
The key elements were the timing of the dismissal combined with the hostile events taking place and the coinciding visit of the environment health team. The employee as a result of the treatment received was awarded by the tribunal a compensation amount of £12,636.40 including awards for unfair dismissal, injury to feelings, unauthorised deduction from wages and breach of the Working Time Regulations 1998.
Action to take
The key message from this case is that employers and managers should take employee concerns seriously and take action to rectify issues.
It is also important to note that employees who have been employed for only a short period may be able to claim if they have been treated to their detriment or dismissed due to raising genuine concerns.