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Sacked for a Sandwich

A common disciplinary area that arises is when an employee is accused of alleged theft.

Traditionally many have taken the view that theft is theft whether it is stealing a yoghurt worth penny from the canteen or stealing client money from an account. The legal definition of theft can vary somewhat depending on the jurisdiction, but generally, theft refers to the unlawful taking of someone else’s property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of property which can include, physical objects, money, services, intellectual property, and other forms of tangible or intangible assets.

 Theft is generally considered a criminal offence and is punishable under criminal law. However, in an employment context it also generally dealt with via a disciplinary process and if found culpable will likely result in termination of employment for not only the actual theft itself but a breach in the mutual trust and respect of the parties.

However, a recent article brought to light an interesting conversation to be had about technical theft in the workplace versus common sense and reasonableness. The headline read, Sacked for a Sandwich whereby a cleaner on £13 per hour, took a sandwich that had been left over from a lunch conference and that was in her opinion heading for the bin.

The cleaner, Gabriela Rodriguez,  who worked for a cleaning contractor providing services to a top city law firm in London was dismissed for taking a discarded £1.50 tuna sandwich from a meeting room. The employee said it was “common practice” to take leftovers for their own lunches. It was cited she took, “client property … without authority or reasonable excuse.”

The United Voices of the World (UVW) union has protested her dismissal, and the employee is said to be overwhelmed by the widespread public outrage.

I feel listened to, protected and supported, and I’m thankful because the union has poured themselves on to this situation to support me,” Rodriguez said.

There are rumours that Rodriguez will be taking legal actions for discrimination and unfair dismissal.

On the facts, the sandwich was left over, and was very probably going to be discarded in the bin and the employee was terminated without notice by reason of theft.

The employee was a single mum and on a low wage and the question is, does this approach really align with modern day practices in other areas of employment such as well-being and health and safety?

The question is now, in light of the cost-of-living crisis, the various online campaigns to be kind and show compassion, was terminating a single mums employment for taking a sandwich reasonable?

 The ‘theft is theft’ principle is one still used by employers to justify decisions made,  however is this a remnant of overzealous power posturing or a valid position on theft regardless of the trivial nature of the property involved?

Should other factors be considered before deciding to impose such punitive and potentially career changing sanctions.

People steal for a variety of reasons, and motivations can differ significantly from one individual to another. Here are some common reasons why people might engage in theft:

  • Economic difficulties, such as poverty, unemployment, or overwhelming debt, can drive individuals to steal out of necessity to meet their basic needs or to maintain a certain standard of living.
  • Individuals struggling with substance abuse disorders may steal to support their addiction by obtaining money or goods to buy drugs or alcohol.
  • Some individuals may have underlying psychological issues such as kleptomania, a mental health disorder characterised by an impulse to steal items even when there is no financial need or personal use for them.
  • In certain social settings or peer groups, stealing may be normalised or encouraged, leading individuals to engage in theft to gain acceptance, respect, or approval from others.
  • Some individuals may have a skewed moral compass or lack a strong sense of ethics, leading them to justify theft as acceptable behaviour or to disregard the consequences of their actions.
  • In certain situations, individuals may steal impulsively when presented with an opportunity, especially if they believe they can do so without getting caught or facing significant consequences.

It is important to recognise that each case of theft is unique, and factors such as personal circumstances, upbringing, environment, and individual psychology can all play a role in influencing someone’s decision to steal. Addressing the root causes of theft often requires a multifaceted approach that may include education, counselling, social support, economic assistance, and appropriate legal consequences when necessary.

In this case, was stealing a sandwich a breach of trust so fundamental it went to the root of the contract or was this a case of an employer acting unreasonably?

There are various contexts at play and would the situation of been the same had the employee declared other reasons such as being a single mum, struggling economically and was hungry?

It is vital when being a responsible employer to explore other possible explanations. If the employee had said she couldn’t afford to feed herself due to economic hardship and was hungry would the, ‘theft is theft’ principle still be reasonable?

The following circumstances may be relevant when deciding whether to dismiss:

  • The relevant background to the offence, including previous warnings or similar incidents.
  • The employee’s length of service.
  • The employee’s prior disciplinary record.
  • Whether the employee admitted the offence and showed remorse.
  • Whether the employee was provoked or acted under stress.

When dismissing an employee for misconduct all circumstances should be considered as the legal test in consideration is whether the misconduct is sufficiently serious and whether the employer acted reasonably.

It is vital therefore to take into account all circumstance rather than adopt a zero -tolerance policy. It is worth pointing out that just because a policy ostensibly states a zero-tolerance approach this does not mean an employer’s actions in any subsequent dismissal will be deemed fair by taking this approach.

We will be following the case with interest especially to see how it shapes future attitudes towards traditional held views on matters such as theft in the workplace.

If you find yourself in a similar situation as an employer or employee then please do not hesitate to get in touch with the RELA team we will be happy to give you some guidance.

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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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