Midlands businesses have been warned about relying too heavily on HR departments when conducting disciplinary hearings following the outcome of an Employment Appeal Tribunal.
Tracy Worthington, an employment lawyer with FBC Manby Bowdler, said the case brought against the Department for Transport sent an important message to other organisations.
The case centred around an employee who was dismissed for allegedly falsifying his travel expenses. During the initial internal disciplinary hearing, a manager recommended issuing a final written warning after hearing his explanation.
But the employee was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct after the manager sought guidance from his HR team.
The appeal ruling said the difference between the two outcomes suggested improper influence from HR and the case was referred back to the tribunal to investigate HR’s involvement.
Tracy said: “The ruling demonstrates that HR advice provided within disciplinary proceedings must be limited to questions of law and procedure and must not extend to deciding whether to uphold the allegations or the appropriate sanction to impose.
“The case highlights the importance of ensuring that adequate training has been given to those expected to conduct disciplinary proceedings, so that they understand what their role involves and the extent to which they can seek advice from HR.”
She added: “The decision serves as a useful reminder to all businesses that, unlike discussions with their lawyers, any communications with HR will be disclosable as part of any subsequent court or tribunal proceedings.
“Employers need to be aware of this and consider whether their discussions could be seen to undermine the fairness of the process or their ultimate decision.
“Businesses also need to ensure that individuals appointed to conduct disciplinary proceedings within their own organisation have the correct training, experience and the confidence they need to make those important decisions.”