Whilst employers will invariably endeavour to individually consult with their staff with a view to reaching agreement regarding working additional hours in the lead up to Christmas, the case of Edwards v Bramble Foods Ltd ET/2601556/2015 is a salutary reminder that for those employees who might unreasonably refuse to work some extra hours, an employment tribunal has previously decided that the dismissal of an employee who refused to work extra hours before Christmas was fair.
Mrs Edwards was employed by Bramble Foods Limited, a relatively small company, whose work in the run up to Christmas involved the preparation of hampers and various other Christmas gifts.
Mrs Edwards’ contract of employment contained a clause which stated that she may be required to work additional shifts when business needs dictated. Staff were asked to choose between four and eight Saturday mornings that they could work in September and October, a busy period for the business in the run up to Christmas. All staff except Mrs Edwards agreed to work the additional hours. Mrs Edwards refused, her reason being that she wanted to spend time with her husband on a Saturday. She then proceeded to boast to other staff members about how she could have a lie in on a Saturday, causing staff members to raise complaints about her behaviour.
The Tribunal held that Mrs Edwards was required under her contract to make herself available for these additional hours. They deemed this request to be a reasonable management instruction, for which Mrs Edwards had no proper ground to refuse.
A key consideration for the employer in their decision to dismiss was their concern that other staff could also start to refuse to work the additional hours if Mrs Edwards was excused from doing so and further that her behaviour was having a detrimental impact on the rest of the workforce. The employer was concerned about its ability to meet targets and orders, should other members of staff refuse to work their overtime in light of Mrs Edwards’ protests.
The Tribunal decided that the dismissal was fair and stated “…she [the Claimant] had been given a contract of employment which said that she may be required to work additional hours and she had no legitimate reason for refusing what she accepts was a reasonable management instruction. She just didn’t want to do the work it seems. The consequences for the respondent had the claimant not been dismissed might have been disastrous. The respondent had been extraordinarily patient…Dismissal was unarguably with the range of reasonable responses to a very difficult situation…”
In deciding this case, the Tribunal placed significant emphasis on the fact that the contract contained a specific clause in relation to the requirement to work additional hours when needed, which the employer was then able to rely on as part of its successful defence of the case. Ultimately the Tribunal found that Mrs Edwards had no good reason for refusing to work the overtime. Whilst this case will be welcomed by employers, caution should always be exercised before dismissing any employee. This case could have turned out very differently had Mrs Edwards had a legitimate reason for her refusal to work the overtime requested, for example, had she said she was unable to work because of a disability, or child caring commitments, this could have given rise to a potential discrimination complaint.
Employers should always obtain legal advice in relation to their contractual rights and obligations before taking disciplinary action and particularly in cases of potential dismissal. Louise McAloon is a Partner in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors, Belfast. For legal advice please telephone 028 90434015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.