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Employment Law

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Veale Wasborough Vizards , 09 DEC 2015

Eat, drink and be merry - but be careful at your family business Christmas party!

Eat, drink and be merry - but be careful at your family business Christmas party!
Jessica Ryan
Solicitor, Veale Wasbrough Vizards

The Christmas party is a great time for you to reward your employees for all the hard work they have put in throughout the year. However, sometimes they do not pass without incident.

In the recent case of MBNA Ltd v Jones, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) considered the treatment of two employees following a fight between them at a party held by their employer.

The facts

The claimant (J) and his colleague (B) both attended the event. All staff had been told that the usual standards of conduct would apply. J and B had been drinking beforehand and were initially getting on well. However, the night took a turn for the worse, which culminated in J punching B in the face. B then sent J seven text messages threatening him with serious violence.

MBNA Ltd disciplined both J and B, finding no substantive provocation before J punched B. J was dismissed for gross misconduct. B's texts were found to be extremely violent and an act of gross misconduct, but they were also viewed as an immediate response to being hit by J. B was therefore given a final written warning rather than a dismissal.

J claimed he had been unfairly dismissed as he had been treated differently to B. His claim was successful at the Employment Tribunal and MBNA Ltd then appealed to the EAT.

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The decision

The EAT allowed the appeal, holding that if it was reasonable for an employee to be dismissed, undue leniency towards another employee is 'neither here nor there', and would not affect the fairness of the employee's dismissal. 

Whilst the incident arose out of the same background facts, the two conduct issues were separate, since J had punched a colleague, whereas B had issued threats of violence that were not carried out. The circumstances leading to the disciplinary were therefore not completely parallel.

Best practice

The case highlights the difficulties for claimants in alleging disparity of treatment by their employers in disciplinary action. Whilst the case does ensure family business owners retain a level of discretion when disciplining their employees following an incident of this type, caution should be exercised and owners should be prepared to justify their decision.

Merry Christmas!
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