In small family businesses, disagreements are often patched up informally. However, as an Employment Tribunal (ET) ruling showed, it is vital to remember that legal standards of fairness in employment relationships apply to them in just the same way as to giant corporations.
The case concerned a woman who had worked as a stylist in a hair salon owned by her sister for over 20 years. Heated exchanges between them were commonplace, but would generally be resolved amicably, sometimes with a bunch of flowers and an apology. Matters took a different course, however, following a row in which the stylist swore at her sister and refused to leave the premises when asked.
The stylist was served with a formal suspension letter and she was summarily dismissed following a disciplinary process conducted by her sister’s partner, who performed an administrative role in the business. After she sought to appeal, she was denied a hearing on the basis that she had put forward no further information and had stated that she did not want her job back in any event.
After she launched an unfair dismissal claim, the ET took account of the modest size of the business and its limited administrative resources. The stylist admitted having used foul language and refusing to leave the salon and her sister’s partner, who was trying to help out in good faith, had done his best to follow a fair procedure. Both he and the sister genuinely believed that the stylist was guilty of gross misconduct which justified her dismissal.
In upholding her complaint, however, the ET pinpointed flaws in the decision-making process and found that her dismissal fell outside the range of responses open to a reasonable employer. Her sister’s partner had closed his mind to her claim that she had been provoked and she had been given no opportunity to challenge her sister’s account of the argument. Those shortcomings were exacerbated by the fact that she was not allowed to appeal against her dismissal.
There was no evidence that the particular altercation between the sisters was any different from previous rows between them and the ET found that the incident could reasonably have been dealt with by issuing a warning to the stylist not to overstep the mark again. The ET nevertheless found that, given her admitted misconduct, she bore 25 per cent of the responsibility for her own dismissal. The amount of her compensation will be assessed at a further hearing.