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Employment Law Case Update: Suspending an employee

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Suspending an employee may be an open and shut case as far as you're concerned, but you should always ensure you follow a correct procedure and don't make any hasty decisions.  Our Employment Law team here reviews the case of Strothard v Durham and offers their advice as to how to proceed if suspension is deemed necessary.

Dr S Strothard worked at Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) from December 2011 until November 2018. CEM had a contract with The Buckinghamshire Grammar Schools (TBGS) to produce entrance assessments for 13 grammar schools, for which Dr Strothard devised the questions.

In September 2018, CEM was informed that the publication, Tes, was doing a story on allegations that TBGS was “secretly operating an illegal policy of marking admission tests differently for children living outside the county.” Senior leadership at CEM prepared a statement denying any wrongdoing should they be contacted.

On investigating the allegations, Executive Director Ms Beatty became concerned that employees of CEM had been manipulating test results and senior leaders decided Dr Strothard would be suspended. The reasons given were that it was necessary to secure any evidence contained at CEM and prevent future allegations of evidence tampering against Dr Strothard. Dr Strothard was informed that she was being suspended with pay on 28 September.

Two weeks later, Dr Strothard raised a grievance with HR Director Ms Race, stating that her suspension was “a knee-jerk reaction without any evidence of wrongdoing” and “a serious breach of trust and confidence on the part of the University.”

An HR representative responded, saying suspension was a “neutral act” and a grievance could not be raised according to the University’s disciplinary regulation. Dr Strothard responded that the failure to deal with her grievance was a further breach of trust and confidence. She also sought further clarity on the nature of the allegations against her and the reasons for her suspension. She did not receive a satisfactory response from Ms Race and eventually raised concerns under the University’s whistleblowing policy.

In November 2018, Ms Race wrote to Dr Strothard informing her that the investigation was almost complete and therefore the suspension would be lifted immediately. By this time, Dr Strothard was unwell and signed off work by her doctor due to “work-related stress causing a flare up of colitis” until the end of November.

On 22 November, Dr Strothard wrote to Ms Race to say that she felt she had “no alternative other than to resign” based on the actions of the University which “completely destroyed the trust and confidence in our working relationship.”

Dr Strothard then filed a claim with the Employment Tribunal (ET) for constructive unfair dismissal.

In considering whether CEM acted reasonably, the ET did not agree that suspension is a “neutral act.” It stated suspension is a “serious matter” that can cast a “shadow” over the employee involved.  The ET suggested two alternatives CEM could have used; firstly that Dr Strothard could have been asked to explain the allegations in the Tes article. Secondly, CEM could have restricted Dr Strothard’s access to IT systems. The ET also reasoned that restricting Dr Strothard’s IT access would have protected her from future allegations of tampering with evidence. The ET concluded that the suspension was “over-hasty” and that CEM did not properly deal with Dr Strothard’s grievances or her whistleblowing complaint as set out in the University’s policies. 

The ET was satisfied that the suspension, failure to deal with the grievances, and failure to deal with the whistleblowing complaint amounted to a fundamental breach of Dr Strothard’s contract of employment, causing her to resign.  It found that Dr Strothard had been constructively dismissed and, as no reason was offered for the dismissal, the ET concluded the dismissal was unfair.

This case reminds us that suspension can cause a lot of stress and put strain on the employee-employer relationship. It should not be taken lightly and employers should carefully consider suitable alternatives. Where suspension is deemed necessary, employers should maintain open communication with the employee, explaining why they are being suspended, and how long the suspension is expected to last.

If you have any questions regarding this article, you can call our Employment team today on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

This was previously part of our weekly Employment Law Newsletter. If you would like to subscribe, please email us at events@warnergoodman.co.uk or just fill in our subscription form.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.