Business Law & Compliance

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Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies: Lessons from Chris Huhne

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Chris Huhne, a former cabinet minister, has resigned as an MP. You know the story: he has been charged with trying to pass responsibility for a speeding offence to his former wife and attempting to pervert the course of justice. Originally he pleaded not guilty, but last week he admitted doing so. Huhne’s name now joins the rogues’ gallery of politicians all brought down by their willingness to lie to Parliament and/or the courts, including John Profumo, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer.

The developments have sparked a by-election in his constituency and done nothing to improve the overall image of politicians’ integrity and honesty. Huhne is not an employee so he wouldn’t be dismissed in the way you would find in most workplaces. If he had not resigned he might eventually have been de-selected. But what happens if you find that an employee has engaged in behaviour that damages your reputation? Bringing an employer into disrepute arises where the employee’s conduct outside work becomes apparent and that conduct becomes associated with his employer.

The misconduct giving rise to the charge can take a variety of forms, though often it’s sexual misconduct – think Chelsea FC’s Ashley Cole and John Terry. Bringing an employer into disrepute doesn’t just apply to footballers, though. In one case, a primary school teacher posed for photographs which were featured on a website for glamour models. Her conduct was found to have brought her employer into disrepute considering her role within the school. The teacher was formally warned, though not dismissed. The outcome might well have been different if the website had been pornographic.

Employment contracts often specifically state that employers will be able to terminate an employee’s employment if his conduct outside work brings the employer into disrepute. But employers should not start disciplinary proceedings based only on their personal disapproval of an employee’s behaviour. Proceed with caution when classing conduct outside work as a disciplinary offence. Demonstrate some common-sense. Catherine Sanderson, who worked in Paris for a rather old fashioned firm of Anglo-French accountants, was dismissed when she posted a photo of herself on her blog, even though she did not mention the company she worked for and wrote the blog in her own time. Not entirely surprisingly, she won her claim for unfair dismissal at the Paris tribunal.

Make sure you follow your disciplinary procedures. 

Here are some things to consider when you take disciplinary action:

  • Carry out an appropriate investigation. This should be undertaken by someone who will not conduct any subsequent disciplinary hearing;
  • If you use precautionary suspension, it should be paid and for as short a time as possible;
  • If there’s a case to answer, invite the employee in writing to a disciplinary hearing, and give him/her sufficient time to prepare his case. Provide details of the allegations, the basis for them and the underpinning evidence. Allow him the right to be accompanied;
  • If after you’ve heard the employee’s explanation you are satisfied that the case has been substantiated, make sure that any penalty is proportionate and justified; and
  • Where you have awarded a sanction, give the employee the right to appeal

Even if an employee engages in really serious behaviour (whether inside work or out of working hours) make sure that any disciplinary action you take is fair and a correct process is followed.

Kate Russell is MD of Russell HR Consulting.

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