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Crime does pay

Meredith Hurst Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In what some might call a cruel twist of fate, an employer found he was on the wrong end of an award of compensation of £5,000 plus £8,000 costs when his employee took him to court for psychological injury, despite the fact that the employee admitted to stealing £845 from him.

In an incident redolent of the medieval stocks on the village green, the employer Mr C marched Mr G through the streets of Witham, Essex, whilst forcing him to wear a cardboard sign that read: "Thief. I stole £845. I'm on my way to the police station."

This was not a claim brought in the employment tribunal but rather in the county court. Mr G, who claimed negligence, alleged that he had suffered psychological injury after the incident. The employee admitted writing the cheque to himself and cashing it in, but claimed that he was owed wages by his employer. He wanted to use the money for a holiday and asserted that his boss was too busy to write the cheque himself. He didn't deny the allegations and eventually paid the cheque back. What the employer did not bank upon was the court hitting him with a legal bill for £13,000.

What lesson can we draw from this? Well, if you are an employee, perhaps it is that crime does pay after all, but on a serious note, it is unlikely that dismissal in these circumstances would have been unfair.  Theft of course is a very serious matter and it is always better to discuss shortfalls in pay with your employer rather than taking unilateral action such as that taken by Mr G.

From an employer's perspective, it is important always to act reasonably when dealing with misconduct in the workplace. Conduct is a potentially fair reason for dismissal and provided the employer has reasonable grounds for asserting a belief in misconduct and follows a reasonable procedure involving an investigation, a properly convened disciplinary hearing and allows the employee the right of appeal against the sanction imposed, the employer will be some way towards establishing a fair dismissal in the event that the employee does challenge it.

The facts of this case are not unusual. Theft in the workplace is not unheard of. The method of dealing with the offence by the employer on the other hand is highly unusual and it is unfortunate that he took such a maverick approach.

This case is a salutary lesson for any employer considering taking the law into their own hands when it comes to employee misconduct. As tempting as it may be, it is always advisable to act reasonably, follow due process and deliberate before making a decision that could land you in hot water.