Pilot who listed Star Wars character as reference must repay training costs

Lawyers stress importance of cross-checking details, as tribunal dismisses employee’s claims against airline

Lawyers have sounded fresh warnings about the importance of checking references properly, after a pilot was found by a tribunal to have used a pseudonym for a Star Wars villain on an application form. 

Birmingham Employment Tribunal dismissed Mr N F M’s claims against West Atlantic. However, it allowed the airline’s counterclaims and told the pilot to pay back almost £5,000 in training costs. 

The pilot had successfully applied for a position with the commercial freight airline operator as a captain. 

But court documents stated that the pilot, who did not attend the tribunal hearing, had “provided a false reference”. The reference on his application “purported to be from Desilijic Tiure”, an alternative name for Star Wars character Jabba the Hutt. 

The tribunal heard that, when West Atlantic discovered this, it confronted the employee, who “initially denied but, ultimately, largely admitted” the false referee. West Atlantic offered him the opportunity to resign on 30 June 2017, which he did. 

The pilot claimed three months’ notice pay, his contractual notice entitlement. West Atlantic counterclaimed for recovery of his training costs, as he had signed an agreement stating that these were repayable if he was terminated within the first six months of his employment. 

The tribunal dismissed the pilot’s claim but allowed West Atlantic’s counterclaim. 

“If there had been an incident, the consequences for [West Atlantic], and others, could have been catastrophic. Even if no lives were lost, any enquiry would have discovered that he was inadequately trained for the position in which he flew,” said judge Broughton. “In those circumstances [West Atlantic] was well within [its] rights to treat the actions as gross misconduct.”

The tribunal awarded West Atlantic £4,725. 

Michael Bronstein, employment partner at Dentons, told People Management that employers needed to carry out rigorous checks of references. 

“I think this case is about recognising the flaws in human nature that we sometimes take what someone says at face value,” Bronstein said. “Employers need to carefully cross-check references because it’s your only chance to check what the employee is telling you.”

Vivienne Reeve, principal associate at Gowling WLG, added: “Checking references given by applicants is an important part of any recruitment process, but where experience equates to safety, doing so is critical. Having a second pair of eyes to safeguard the process can mitigate the risk of fake references slipping through the net and protect the interests of customers and staff.”

Kirsty Ayre, partner at Irwin Mitchell, recommended that employers think carefully about what questions they ask when investigating references. 

“I think references aren’t worth that much, but you still get some employers who will send out questionnaires to references,” Ayre said. “I think they can be more useful. You can ask key questions, such as if they would re-employ the candidate or if they had any reason to doubt their integrity.”

She added that employers should “build reference checking into their recruitment process” before making an offer of employment and state that employment is conditional upon successful references. 

However, Andrew Willis, head of legal at CIPD HR-inform, said that obtaining references likely involved processing personal data, “which can complicate” the recruitment process. 

“Under data protection laws, employers must ensure that all references sought are consented to in writing by the candidate,” Willis explained. “They would also be wise to outline exactly what details they will be requesting from the relevant referees during the application process.”