An employment tribunal decision has warned employers against carrying out alternations to contractual job duties without carrying out a consultation process or seeking agreement to the change.

In Dickenson v The Governing Body of Easington Lane Primary School and anor, the claimant was a School Business Manager responsible for the school’s budget and 15 employees. In November 2015, the claimant met with the Finance Officer and discovered that the school would suffer a financial shortfall. The claimant was later approached by a receptionist who wanted to find out her future prospects with the company. The claimant informed her that her additional hours could not be guaranteed in the future and there had been discussions about redundancies. The Head Teacher was informed about this discussion and decided to suspend the claimant to carry out an investigation into the conversation and her failure to report her financial concerns.

The claimant remained suspended for nine weeks. Following a disciplinary hearing, it was accepted that her failure to report the shortfall was due to capability, rather than misconduct. In addition, the redundancy conversation was not carried out with any malicious intent so no formal action was recommended.

On the claimant’s return to work, her security pass was disabled and she was told not to go into her office. She was called into a meeting and told her financial and management responsibilities were being removed. She was informed she would be working in reception updating the school’s database until a performance improvement plan was in place. The Acting Head Teacher informed her that once she had updated the database she could do “officey things”. The claimant became distressed and went off work sick, resigning in April 2016. She made a claim of unfair constructive dismissal.

The employment tribunal (ET) found that the claimant had been constructively dismissed as there was a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence due to her treatment. The ET found that:

  • The suspension was unjustified and in breach of the employer’s own policy. The policy allowed suspension to carry out a full and fair investigation where a child was at risk or allegations were so serious a gross misconduct dismissal was possible. The manager had already started investigating the matter before suspending the employee and the likely outcome was only a written or final written warning.
  • The removal of the claimant’s financial duties, her line management responsibilities and her office was a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence.

What this means for employers:

  • Changing contractual job duties should only take place with agreement from the employee, either informally or through following a formal consultation process. Unilaterally changing contractual terms will create a significant risk of a constructive dismissal claim.
  • Employers should ensure they are following their internal processes in a clear and consistent manner. This means ensuring each situation falls within the parameters of the policy and adhering to any time limits or deadlines included in internal procedures.