The correct approach to previous warnings in unfair dismissal cases

by Laurie Anstis on November 21, 2012

It is quite common for unfair dismissal claims to involve issues about previous warnings which have been given to the employee. There will often be disputes about whether the previous warning was justified, what happens if the warning has or has not been appealed by the employee, and whether the previous warning really covered the same kind of problem that the employee was eventually dismissed for.

Each of these matters had to be dealt with by the EAT in Wincanton v Stone & Gregory. In his judgment, the President, Mr Justice Langstaff, set out the correct approach that tribunals and employers should adopt to previous warnings. I can do no better than set out the whole of that part of the judgment (paragraph 37) below:

“We can summarise our view of the law as it stands, for the benefit of Tribunals who may later have to consider the relevance of an earlier warning. A Tribunal must always begin by remembering that it is considering a question of dismissal to which section 98, and in particular section 98(4), applies. Thus the focus, as we have indicated, is upon the reasonableness or otherwise of the employer’s act in treating conduct as a reason for the dismissal. If a Tribunal is not satisfied that the first warning was issued for an oblique motive or was manifestly inappropriate or, put another way, was not issued in good faith nor with prima facie grounds for making it, then the earlier warning will be valid. If it is so satisfied, the earlier warning will not be valid and cannot and should not be relied upon subsequently. Where the earlier warning is valid, then:

(1)  The Tribunal should take into account the fact of that warning.

(2)  A Tribunal should take into account the fact of any proceedings that may affect the validity of that warning. That will usually be an internal appeal. This case is one in which the internal appeal procedures were exhausted, but an Employment Tribunal was to consider the underlying principles appropriate to the warning. An employer aware of the fact that the validity of a warning is being challenged in other proceedings may be expected to take account of that fact too, and a Tribunal is entitled to give that such weight as it sees appropriate.

(3)  It will be going behind a warning to hold that it should not have been issued or issued, for instance, as a final written warning where some lesser category of warning would have been appropriate, unless the Tribunal is satisfied as to the invalidity of the warning.

(4)  It is not to go behind a warning to take into account the factual circumstances giving rise to the warning. There may be a considerable difference between the circumstances giving rise to the first warning and those now being considered. Just as a degree of similarity will tend in favour of a more severe penalty, so a degree of dissimilarity may, in appropriate circumstances, tend the other way. There may be some particular feature related to the conduct or to the individual that may contextualise the earlier warning. An employer, and therefore Tribunal should be alert to give proper value to all those matters.

(5)  Nor is it wrong for a Tribunal to take account of the employers’ treatment of similar matters relating to others in the employer’s employment, since the treatment of the employees concerned may show that a more serious or a less serious view has been taken by the employer since the warning was given of circumstances of the sort giving rise to the warning, providing, of course, that was taken prior to the dismissal that falls for consideration.

(6)  A Tribunal must always remember that it is the employer’s act that is to be considered in the light of section 98(4) and that a final written warning always implies, subject only to the individual terms of a contract, that any misconduct of whatever nature will often and usually be met with dismissal, and it is likely to be by way of exception that that will not occur.”

The “section 98” referred to is section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which sets out the basic statutory formula for assessing whether a dismissal is fair or unfair.