Office prank led to unfair dismissal

A technical product manager who set up lines of sherbet powder and a rolled up piece of paper on his desk to look like drugs was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.

The tribunal found that despite other employees recognising the prank – which was discovered by an external cleaning team – as the employee “playing silly sods”, senior management felt it had been left deliberately for the cleaners and had the potential to bring the company into disrepute.

However, the judge ruled that “no reasonable employer” would have decided the conduct merited dismissal. 

The employee had worked for the company for 14 years before his dismissal. When it was reported to a senior manager that a cleaner had found a small clear plastic bag containing white powder, two lines of loose powder and something that had been rolled into a “cylinder or straw-like” shape, it was immediately assumed that it was a joke. However, despite this, the manager contacted the police who attended the office to test the powder and confirmed it was not drugs but sherbet powder.

The employee who was on a week’s holiday starting the day after he left the items on his desk, had no idea about the problems at work. He told the tribunal that when he returned to the office he found he was “locked out” of the IT system and had to wait an hour to find out what was going on before being asked to attend a meeting.

The tribunal found that the employee was not “wholly cooperative or forthcoming” during the investigation meeting but he did “consistently maintain” the items were not left intentionally for the cleaners to find.

The investigation manager went on to interview two members of staff who said a colleague had brought in sherbet to the office, which had “led to ‘banter’ in the team about the powder”, and that the employee may have forgotten about the items on his desk as he was working away from it on that day.

The same manager called a disciplinary meeting and dismissed the employee because the incident “ran the risk of damaging the company’s reputation”. The dismissing manager told the tribunal that he concluded that there was an intention to leave the items for the cleaners to find and that he felt the employee had an “air of contempt” for the company.

The tribunal judge ruled that the dismissal was unfair because there were no reasonable grounds for the conclusion the employee had left the items deliberately; the sanction was outside the range of reasonable responses for his conduct; and there was a failure to follow reasonable process as the same manager who conducted the investigation, subsequently conducted the disciplinary.

He said: “In terms of the range of blameworthiness, this conduct is properly categorised as foolish, insensitive, careless and uncooperative,” adding that it would have “merited some form of warning but not the loss of his job”.

This is a lesson that employers should always conduct a proper investigation, even where something may appear to amount to gross misconduct. It is unwise to automatically rely on something that could cause reputational damage as a reason for dismissal, where the actual chances of it doing so are remote. In addition, length of service and disciplinary record should be taken into account when deciding on the a sanction of dismissal, as against a final written warning. 

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