Case of the week: Employer’s reasonable response makes a difference

Claridge v Daler Rowney Ltd

FACTS Mr B J Claridge was employed by art supply company Daler Rowney as a team leader. He had worked for the company for more 34 years and had an unblemished service record. He resigned from the company in August 2007. The events leading up to Claridge’s resignation started with an incident one Friday in 2006 when the production manager saw him leaving his post on the production line on more than one occasion. On the following Monday the production manager held a meeting with Claridge to discuss the incident. The production manager told him he had to “buck up his ideas” and that if he did not do so he might be demoted.

Following this, Claridge took a period of sick leave. His absence caused the company particular difficulty as another supervisor in the same department was already on sick leave, so the company appointed an internal person to cover Claridge’s absence. He continued to be receive his salary as a team leader while off sick.

That same month, Claridge issued three grievances, all claiming that he had been demoted. The company offered him a meeting to discuss his grievance, but, due to requests from his adviser and his continued ill-health, the meeting did not take place until February 2007.

At the grievance meeting, Claridge was told he had not been demoted and that the person currently doing his role was simply covering his absence. After some delay, the company then wrote to Claridge informing him that his grievance had not been upheld because he had not been demoted. In response to this, Claridge resigned. He then issued an employment tribunal claim alleging that he had been constructively dismissed on the basis that his grievance had not been dealt with properly or within a reasonable time-frame.

DECISION The employment tribunal rejected Claridge’s complaint. Although it had some criticism of the company’s handling of the grievance, it considered that it was bound by an earlier decision, Abbey National plc v Fairbrother. This case held that it was necessary to ask whether an employer’s conduct in relation to the grievance procedure was within the band of reasonable responses open to it in relation to the grievance presented by the employee. The tribunal said that, in relation to Claridge’s complaint and the relevant circumstances, it found that any reasonable employer would have conducted the grievance in the way that the company had. Therefore, Claridge had not been constructively dismissed.

The case then went before to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which upheld the decision of the original tribunal. It said that, although there was some criticism of the company’s handling of the grievance, it was reasonable to find that the company’s actions fell within the band of reasonable responses.

IMPLICATIONS By following the earlier case of Fairbrother this case has continued a line of authority that gives employers some latitude in handling grievance procedures. The way in which a grievance is handled will not be deemed to destroy the relationship of trust and confidence between an employer and its employee – and thereby give grounds for a complaint of constructive dismissal, unless it is outside the band of reasonable responses open to the employer.

Kate Hodgkiss, partner, DLA Piper

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