In the case of Ramphal v Department for Transport the Employment Appeal Tribunal addressed the potential difficulties of a member of HR being heavily involved in a disciplinary process and the result on the fairness of any dismissal.
In this case it was alleged that the employee, Mr Ramphal had made excessive claims in respect of his company expenses. The Employer appointed a manager, Mr Goodchild, to carry out an investigation into the allegations and this manager also acted as the disciplining officer. Mr Goodchild met with HR to familiarise himself with the Company’s procedures and appropriate penalties in this situation. Following the disciplinary hearing Mr Goodchild send his report to HR which concluded that, in his view, and given the explanation provided by Mr Ramphal, that he considered a final written warning was the most appropriate sanction.
There followed lengthy discussions between HR and Mr Goodchild (some 6 months) which resulted in a change in Mr Goodchild’s decision to a finding of gross misconduct with summary dismissal as the appropriate sanction.
Mr Ramphal brought a claim of unfair dismissal but the Employment Tribunal rejected the claim and considered that the dismissal was fair, based on the finding that there had been a reasonable investigation and that Mr Goodchild’s decision to dismiss was within the band of reasonable responses open to a reasonable employer.
The EAT allowed the appeal as the Employment Tribunal had failed to consider the relevant leading case of Chhabra v West London Mental Health NHS Trust (2013). In that case the Supreme Court considered the extent to which an HR department can permissibly influence a disciplinary investigation. In that case it was decided that alterations made to an investigatory report by HR went beyond clarification, with the result being that the report no longer reflected the findings of the investigating officer. The EAT sent the case back to the Employment Tribunal to consider the facts in light of the Chhabra case.
If an employer has an HR resource it is highly likely that they will be involved with any disciplinary process. This case serves as an important reminder that the person with conduct of the disciplinary process is the ‘decision maker’ and where they consult with HR regarding their decision, the role of HR should be limited to that of guidance regarding procedures and processes. Whilst HR can give their views as to proposed penalty in terms of consistency of treatment with other employees, it should not influence the decision making process so much so that it does not truly reflect the disciplinary officer’s conclusions.
This can sometimes be a fine line for HR professionals to tread. If you are in any doubt regarding your remit it is best to take legal advice.