Can Dismissal Without Any Disciplinary Process Ever Be Fair?

Can a dismissal ever be fair if formal disciplinary procedures are dispensed with? A tribunal addressed that issue in the case of a senior railway company employee who was sacked on the spot following a breakdown in relations with her line manager (Gallacher v Abellio Scotrail Ltd).

The employee held a lynchpin role in the company's customer services department. Her relationship with her line manager was initially good but steadily declined due to stark differences of opinion in respect of operational matters. On the basis that the breakdown in their relations was irretrievable, she was dismissed during her annual appraisal meeting. Although she received nine weeks' pay in lieu of notice, no disciplinary procedure was followed and she was offered no right of appeal.

After she lodged an unfair dismissal complaint, an Employment Tribunal (ET) noted that the company was at a critical juncture: it had recently reported a loss, budgets were tight and it was at risk of receiving substantial fines if its performance did not improve. Against that background, the employee's continued good working relationship with her line manager was crucial.

In rejecting her claim, the ET noted that her dismissal was not related to her conduct or performance but to what senior management viewed as an irreparable breakdown in her relationship of trust and confidence with her line manager. There was no evidence that she was interested in retrieving that relationship and there were no alternative roles within the business to which she could be reassigned.

The permanent breakdown in relations between two managers could not be ignored or allowed to continue and the ET found that the employee's dismissal was in those circumstances inevitable. A disciplinary process would have served no purpose and, if anything, would have worsened the situation. Permitting her to appeal against her dismissal would have been going through the motions.

Ruling on her challenge to the ET's decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted that affording employees an opportunity to make representations before dismissal, and to appeal against any dismissal, are in the vast majority of cases fundamental to notions of natural justice and fairness.

Dismissing the appeal, however, the EAT found that this was one of those very rare cases where disciplinary procedures had fairly been dispensed with. The employee and the line manager needed to be able to work together during a time of crisis for the company and senior management held a genuine belief that their relationship was beyond repair. In those circumstances, dismissing the employee without any procedure fell within the band of reasonable responses open to the company.