When a Manager’s angry words constituted a dismissal

2015-08-21 Philip posted:

An Employment Tribunal in Townsend v Commercial Storage Ltd has held that a manager's angry words to "not bother coming back on Monday" during an argument constituted a dismissal.

Mr Townsend worked as a driver for a small family business, run by Mr Cooke. They had known each other for over 20 years. He was seen as a good employee – shy and kept his head down and got on with things. The two got into an argument – Mr Cook wanted Mr Townsend to cut his holiday short and come into work earlier than planned. When Mr Townsend reported to work early, the two got into an argument which lead to Mr Cook telling him “get out of the yard and don't bother coming back on Monday." Mr Townsend took this as a dismissal, left the workplace. He left his keys and work mobile phone behind. Mr Cooke made no attempt to contact him in the next few weeks, and sent him his P45 at the end of August.

In Mr Townsend's unfair dismissal claim, the key issue was whether he had been dismissed or had resigned.

The Employment Tribunal found that the words "don't bother coming back on Monday" were sufficient to constitute a dismissal.

The Tribunal recapped on the principles when dealing with ambiguous words of dismissal or resignation. The determining factor is not the subjective intention of the speaker. The tribunal's task is to consider, in all the circumstances, what a reasonable person would have understood by the words used. It may be relevant to look at what happened before and after the relevant exchanges.

The Employment Tribunal accepted that whilst there were no explicit words of dismissal, a reasonable person in the claimant's position would have understood the words as being a dismissal. The requirement not to come back indicated something more than a temporary departure from the workplace. He also behaved in a way that suggested a dismissal: he left the employer's property behind and did not return the following Monday. He told others that he had been sacked. The employer's failure to act also suggested a dismissal: if the claimant had not been dismissed, one would have expected Mr Cooke to have contacted him to enquire as to his whereabouts.

Once the Tribunal concluded that Mr Townsend had been dismissed, it had no hesitation in upholding his unfair dismissal claim. There was a total failure to adopt any sort of fair procedure.

This case is a good example to demonstrate to managers that they must avoid using words that could be construed as an on-the-spot dismissal when tempers are frayed. An instant dismissal will be procedurally unfair.The most appropriate course of action for a manager faced with an employee who has lost control will be to send him or her home for the day. The employer can recall the employee to the workplace a day or two later to discuss the matter when emotions are not running so high.

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