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‘Perverse’ Unfair Dismissal Finding Overturned

lab equipmentWhere a laboratory worker employed in a safety-critical field frankly admitted falsifying records, his dismissal was fair and a finding to the contrary reached by the lay members of the Employment Tribunal (ET) was perverse, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled (SPS Technologies Limited v Chughtai).

Mr Chughtai was engaged in testing equipment for SPS Technologies Limited, which specialises in the manufacture of fasteners for the aerospace industry. It was acknowledged that any flaw in his work could result in catastrophic failure and loss of life. It was specifically stated in the company’s code of conduct that there could be no compromise on safety standards and that all records must be 100 per cent accurate.

Following a whistleblowing complaint, Mr Chughtai admitted from the outset that, having received information that a product sample had failed a test, he had entered false scores, showing a pass. He contended, however, that the practice was commonplace and that he had acted with the knowledge and approval of his line manager. Mr Chughtai was suspended whilst an investigation into the matter was conducted but this failed to find any corroborative forensic evidence that his manager was engaged in and/or authorised the falsification of test data. Mr Chughtai was subsequently dismissed on grounds of gross misconduct.

At first instance, the ET’s lay majority (the Employment Judge dissenting) found that the claimant had been unfairly dismissed on three main bases. Firstly, SPS Technologies’ failure to suspend the manager at the outset fatally undermined the integrity of the ensuing disciplinary process. Secondly, a reasonable employer, following a detailed investigation of the ‘common practice’ allegations, would have concluded that the claimant was telling the truth and accordingly would have then taken action short of dismissal. Thirdly, the disciplinary hearing was a foregone conclusion and the decision to dismiss was predetermined. Mr Chughtai was awarded compensation of more than £43,000.
The EAT overturned the ET’s decision and dismissed Mr Chughtai’s claim. In its view, given that he had admitted data fabrication, dismissal was the only rational course. The ET had taken the wrong approach in law in substituting its own assessment of Mr Chughtai’s credibility for that of his employer, which had carried out a thorough and detailed investigation prior to the dismissal. The ET’s task was to decide whether there was disparity of treatment between Mr Chughtai and his line manager, such that the failure to suspend and/or discipline the latter rendered his dismissal unfair. If that was the ET’s conclusion, which was not clearly explained, it had failed to ask the correct question, which was whether SPS Technologies acted outside the range of reasonable responses in the comparative treatment of Mr Chughtai and his manager.

Mr Chughtai was guilty of misconduct by his own admission. Insofar as the ET found that dismissal fell outside the band of reasonable responses open to the employer, that conclusion was perverse.