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Beware Internal Communication: Aggressive Emails Lead to Unfair Dismissal Claim

A recent determination by the Employment Appeals Tribunal has awarded an employee compensation of €12,500 after finding she was constructively dismissed from her employment. The decision was primarily based on aggressive emails and the fractious relationship the employee had with her General Manager. The case is a prime example of the importance of maintaining positive working relationships and communicating in a professional manner.

Schonfeld -v- West Wood Club Clontarf Limited (UD 1013/2013)

This case concerned an employee, who was the manager of the company’s “fitzone”, who went on maternity leave in May 2010. During the employee’s period of leave a new General Manager was appointed in September 2010. Prior to her return from leave, the employee was notified that her fitzone position no longer existed in isolation and that ultimately she would be required to undertake childcare work also. In addition, it was explained that the employee’s hours would need to “change dramatically”.

Foul Language and Unreasonable

The employee stated that when she returned to the work that she had issues with the General Manager’s reasonableness and that “the general manager constantly screamed at her while gesticulating with her hands in front of the claimant’s face, as well as raising her voice and using foul language… The general manager had screamed and gesticulated at the claimant … to the point that the claimant began to hyperventilate”. The employee stated that when she approached the General Manager to seek a way that they could work together on a proper level that the General Manager responded that this could never happen as the employee was “a f***ing drama queen”.

The General Manager admitted to the EAT that she had sent emails to the employee when in a frustrated state and that “some of the language used was inappropriate”.

Resigning without Lodging a Formal Grievance

The employee ultimately began to seek alternative employment but despite the lack of available job opportunities she resigned anyway. The employee did not lodge any formal grievances prior to resigning and this is worth noting as quite often this is fatal to a claim of constructive dismissal. This concept is similar to that of an employer dismissing an employee; unless the employer does so via internal disciplinary procedures then the employer is unlikely to be able to justify the dismissal. Similarly, if an employee resigns without exhausting the internal grievance procedure then they will find it difficult to justify a constructive dismissal claim. This can be seen in the EAT cases of Keogh -v- Green Isle Foods (UD516/2007) and Clifford -v- Maritrade Ltd (UD27/2000) where the EAT rejected the employee’s claims of constructive dismissal as they had not exhausted internal grievance processes prior to resigning and thus they had not exhausted all avenues.

However, this did not prove fatal to Schonfeld’s claim as the grievance procedure, due to the lack of a relevant HR manager, required her to lodge her grievance to her General Manager, the very same person she had the grievance with.

EAT Decision

The EAT determined that the employee had been constructively dismissed and awarded the employee €12,500 compensation. The EAT outlined that a significant factor in this decision was that “some of the emails sent by that manager to the claimant were aggressive and offensive. That style of communication was compounded by some of her verbal airings with her.”

Conclusion and Learning Points

This case demonstrates the importance of ensuring that all internal communications, written and verbal are of an appropriate and professional tone and nature, and that any performance issues with employees are dealt with in an objective and non-personal manner, preferably through face to face communication. It also demonstrates the importance of having a clear internal grievance, bullying and harassment policy in which employees can have faith in the integrity and independence of the process, especially in the instance that they need to make a complaint against an employee high up or at the top of the organisation.

Peninsula would recommend, based on the above, that employers consider the following questions in respect of their own businesses:

  • Have you got a clear Grievance process in place?
  • Are your employees aware of whom they can report a grievance, particularly where their grievance is against their line manager?
  • Have you got a bullying/harassment/dignity at work policy in place?
  • Have your managers received appropriate training in terms of people management?
  • Have you got a clear Email Policy in place?

If you have any questions in respect of the above article then please do not hesitate to contact Peninsula on 1890 252 923

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