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When can a heated discussion turn into constructive dismissal?

Constructive unfair dismissal guidance from a recent Tribunal case

Constructive dismissal is a technically complex legal claim based on a fundamental breach of contract, each case turns on its own merit and therefore whether a fundamental breach has taken place tends to be hotly debated. 

A recent case has garnered significant attention for its potential implications on the rights of employees and employers. In the case of Ms. S Pywell v. JW Nunn, trading as Primrose Lodge the employee raised multiple claims including discrimination and whistleblowing however these claims were dismissed as the tribunal was satisfied that the dismissal was not related to any protected disclosures made. However, the tribunal upheld the claim of constructive dismissal deeming the actions of the employer to be so unreasonable it breached the contract to such an extent the employee was entitled to resign and was subsequently granted compensation. 

The employee suffered an “abusive outburst” from a manager which left her feeling “degraded and intimidated” and unable to return to her job at Primrose Lodge care home in Leicestershire. The judge noted that no employee should expect to be told to ‘Fu** off’’ by a manager and this constituted a fundamental breach of contract. 

The employee has suffered previous mental health issues and was open about her mental health difficulties when commencing employment. During her employment various issues that amounted to protected disclosures were made to the employer including concerns relating to staffing levels, patient safety and omissions of colleagues. 

The employee experienced friction with the in situ-manager and the relationship appeared to rapidly deteriorate when the employee made several concerns known to the manager about moving patients safely. The conversation became heated between the employee and the manager, and the employee claimed that her manager stated during the exchange, “no wonder you have no friends”, “where is your f***ing uniform”, and “go on, f*** off”.

As a result of this exchange the employee was particularly distressed and was signed off work by her GP. The employee then proceeded to raise a grievance which was dismissed by the employer. 

The tribunal determined that grievance process was woefully inadequate and littered with obvious failings including:

  1. Failure to fill out an investigator report.
  2. No direct investigation regarding the disability discrimination allegation.
  3. Carried out no paperwork.

As a result of the grievance outcome the employee resigned and brought a tribunal claim for constructive dismissal, direct disability discrimination, harassment related to disability and detriment following a protected disclosure.

It was found that due to the words used in the heated exchange between the employee and manager, coupled with the erroneous and poorly conducted grievance process, the employer had destroyed or seriously damaged the mutual trust and confidence between the two parties.

The tribunal judge stated, “No employee should be expected to be told to ‘f*** off’ directly by a manager speaking in anger. No employee should be expected to stand being the victim of a personal attack about their life or their character. No employee should be expected to stand being the victim of a direct threat from their manager, whatever the circumstances.”

It was asserted that the manager’s actions constituted a serious breach of the employment contract which she was entitled to accept, resign, and claim constructive dismissal.

To summarise

The case underscores the importance of creating a workplace environment that is free from harassment, discrimination, and bullying. Employers are now expected to take a proactive approach to prevent such behaviour, promptly address complaints, and to carry out robust and fair grievance procedures to address any complaints. 

Furthermore, the case places a renewed emphasis on the duty of care that employers owe to their employees. It’s not enough to focus solely on physical safety; the mental health and emotional well-being of employees are equally crucial. Failure to meet this obligation can result in significant financial consequences.

Full Judgement

You can read the full judgement of this case here: https://www.gov.uk/employment-tribunal-decisions/miss-s-pywell-v-mr-j-w-nunn-t-slash-a-primrose-lodge-and-others-2601523-slash-2021

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.


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