Contracts Critical to Clear-Cut Cases

A carefully worded contract of employment can enable you the flexibility you needs to meet the demand for your services. The following case is a perfect example of this, allowing the employer involved to take the action it needed which ensured a fair dismissal.

What were the facts of the case?
In Edwards v Bramble Foods Ltd, the employee worked for a fine food distributer specialising in gifts and food hampers. Christmas is an exceptionally busy time for the employer, generating one third of its annual turnover in the 8 week period running up to Christmas.

The employer had asked its employees to do overtime on a series of Saturday mornings, in line with their contracts of employment. Only one employee – Edwards – did not agree, saying that she “spent Saturday mornings with her husband”.

The employer had a number of informal chats with Edwards but she maintained her refusal to work the extra hours. They then began to get complaints from other members of staff that Edwards was mocking them, saying she “was going to have a lie in on Saturdays” when her colleagues would be working.

The employer was worried that her behaviour was having a detrimental effect on other members of staff which may then have an impact on their ability to meet the high customer demand. Edwards was dismissed.

What did the Employment Tribunal decide?
It decided that Edwards has been fairly dismissed. A significant part of the reasoning was her contract of employment contained a clause which stated she may be required to work additional hours when the business required. The Tribunal found that she had no legitimate reason for refusing the extra hours.

The Tribunal also focussed on the potential consequences for the employer had they not dismissed Edwards. It labelled them as ‘disastrous’, because other employees who had originally agreed to work the extra hours may have then withdrawn their agreement. Dismissal was, the Tribunal said “unarguably within the range of reasonable responses to a very difficult situation”.

Lead Employment Law Business Partner Tom Kent says: “If the employer had not had the forethought to reserve the right to require his employees to work additional hours, he would have struggled to enforce his wishes. Having clauses within documentation such as this means it is an agreed contractual term that employees must follow. Clearly if the employee had had a proper reason for refusing e.g. which related to a disability, it may have been a different story”.

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