Greggs baker fairly dismissed for not washing hands once

An employment tribunal recently found that a long service employee was fairly dismissed for a one-off breach of hygiene rules.

A baker with 11 years’ service failed to wash his hands when moving from a non-food production area to a food production area. The employers placed great importance on hand washing and gave training to their staff and reiterated the importance of the rule in the company handbook and internal communications. They had a zero tolerance approach to breaches of hygiene rules and, after a disciplinary process, dismissed the employee.

The employee brought a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal arguing that dismissal was outside the band of reasonable responses available to the employer and, in any case, was too harsh a sanction for a one time offence. He acknowledged the importance that was placed on hand washing by the business and accepted that, due to his own experience, he was aware of the importance of hand washing to food safety.

The employment tribunal dismissed the claim and judged that the decision to dismiss fell in the range of reasonable responses. The employer’s principal reason for dismissal was that the employee could not be trusted to follow hand-washing rules; he had admitted during the disciplinary process he did not always consider it necessary and this posed a risk. The reason for having a zero-tolerance approach was reasonable because, if an outbreak of illness caused by lack of hygiene could be traced back to the business, this would have serious consequences to its reputation and success in a competitive industry.

The tribunal also described the employee’s length of service as a “double-edged sword”. Though length of service is a mitigating factor when deciding on a disciplinary sanction, the employee’s length of service, along with his experience in the food industry lasting over 25 years, meant that the employer was entitled to expect more from the experienced worker.

The importance of this judgment is that it gives scope to employers for reasonable dismissals of long-serving staff for one time offences. However, these are likely to only be fair where the employer can show there was grave importance placed on the issue, employees had been trained and informed of the importance and were aware of this throughout their employment and that the reasons for a zero-tolerance approach are reasonable. It will still also be critical that a fair disciplinary process is carried out before the decision to dismiss is taken.

Lead Business Partner Jon Walker commented on this case: “This case highlights the difference between industry types in what constitutes gross misconduct. The failure of an office worker to wash his hands at work, whilst unsavoury, will not make his employer lose trust in him. However, in food production, a single health and safety failure can be worthy of dismissal.”