One of the UK’s largest energy providers has been ordered to pay an employee £230,000 for unfair dismissal after an HR process a judge said was "reminiscent of a show trial in the former Soviet Union".
Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) said Donald Nutt, who had worked at the firm for 16 years before his dismissal in October 2014, was laid off because of “a breakdown in trust and confidence” between him and his employer.
However, employment Judge Ian McFatridge said Nutt had been sacked because the business did not know what to do with him and had treated him “appallingly”. He added: “There were many, many examples of extremely poor practice and there had been genuine unfairness to Mr Nutt on a substantial number of occasions."
From 2012, energy trader Nutt had raised health and safety issues with management, a process that began when a corporate initiative called ‘Safety Family’ encouraged employees to champion different areas of health and safety.
- Cinema employee accused of encouraging ‘cyber attack’ was automatically unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules
- Will the tribunal system cope with employment status challenges?
- March’s top five employment law cases
Nutt chose to focus on shift work and its possible impact on employee health. His tribunal heard he came to “genuinely believe” SSE was in breach of its obligation under health and safety legislation to provide free health checks, and was concerned about the way night shifts were structured was causing health problems.
During a series of meetings spanning August 2012 to October 2014, the company maintained that its rota “ticked all the boxes with regard to employee health and safety” and said it was in the best interests of the business to maintain its shift patterns. Wellbeing information was dispensed to the workforce with regard to shift working.
Nutt raised a grievance against the company, which was not upheld, and was accused of failing to accept its findings.
The tribunal heard he was told: “You are free to raise any reasonable concerns you have with your manager, but once the outcome has been decided you should accept that outcome and move on in a positive and constructive manner. The topic should not be questioned again unless there is a change in the situation.”
The trader said he was accused of being incapable of receiving criticism. In an email to his line manager, he wrote: “I’m worried you think I’m being awkward. I’m not. I’ve even heard a rumour that I’m going to be taken off night shifts. Is this really what happens when people raise H&S issues? I don’t think I’ll bother next time as it’s seriously a bad career move. You get labelled as selfish, a troublemaker and might lose out financially.”
Throughout his time with the business, Nutt had received excellent appraisal scores and comments. However, in March 2013 he received a poor appraisal score and was informed he would be receiving an informal warning.
He was signed off work that July due to “physical and mental strain due to work”. When he returned after two months, he held a meeting with an HR business partner who decided to bring disciplinary action against him.
The judge found that the HR professional “was demanding that Mr Nutt not only accept throughout that he had been wrong, but also accept a number of factual circumstances that weren't true – principally, that his grievance had been properly investigated. It quite clearly had not.
"At many instances during the meeting, it appears that SSE not only wished Mr Nutt to acknowledge that he was wrong, but express gratitude to SSE for treating him as they had.
This is somewhat reminiscent of a show trial in the former Soviet Union rather than modern employment relations practice."
Nutt was suspended and the disciplinary action continued. The tribunal heard there was “practically no investigation or discussion about what Mr Nutt was supposed to have done on the basis of these allegations, which left him in the Kafkaesque position of – as he put it – arguing that he was not argumentative. He said there was no chance of a fair procedure since what the allegations were was so ambiguous.”
The tribunal found there was no substantial reason to justify Nutt’s dismissal and also criticised a “lackadaisical” approach to company policies.
Sitting for Dundee Employment Tribunal, Judge McFatridge initially ordered SSE to rehire Nutt. When it neglected to do this, his award was increased from £140,000 to £230,000.
The tribunal did not uphold Nutt's claim that he was treated unfairly on the basis of whistleblowing. SSE declined to comment.