A pharmacy worker whose employer tried to begin disciplinary proceedings after she had been dismissed “out of anger” over an anonymous complaint was unfairly and wrongfully dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.
The Newcastle tribunal found that Health Hut Professionals’ (HHP) director Mr Shah behaved in a “hot-headed manner” and “believed he could do whatever he wanted” when he dismissed pharmacy assistant Miss M Yule after a discussion about whether a customer complained about her.
The tribunal ruled that Shah only contacted an external HR after the dismissal had taken place, and “made no attempt whatsoever” to apply any kind of process or procedure to Yule’s dismissal. Additionally, it found that Shah “attempted to rewrite history in order to suit his own narrative”, and outright said he was “not truthful”, as he made attempts to “mislead” Yule and “cover up” the wrongful dismissal.
Yule was employed as a pharmacy assistant on 16 October 2017 in the Morpeth, Northumberland branch. The tribunal highlighted that HHP relies on a third party for HR advice, but that Shah is “responsible for HR matters”.
On 31 January 2022, Shah was contacted by the NHS as a member of the public made an anonymous online complaint about the way they had been spoken to by a female member of staff, but gave no details as to who it might be and did not specify the date on which the incident occurred.
The tribunal heard that Shah did not respond to the original complaint, and was contacted by the NHS team on 4 February for a response.
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Shah spoke to pharmacy assistant Ms Kinghorn on the phone to ascertain who had been working on 28 and 29 January 2022 – the dates of which the tribunal noted was when Shah believed to be the “timeframe in which the incident took place” – and found out Ms Begum was the pharmacist on duty that day.
On the same day, Shah spoke to Begum on the phone and she told him about an “incident” involving a delivery with two customers and an unknown member of the team, and a telephone call between Yule and a “difficult” customer on 29 January, which resulted in Yule’s tone being “slightly raised”.
Begum allegedly told Shah that she did not believe any of the staff, including Yule, did anything on 28 or 29 January that could be a cause for concern, and that their behaviour had not been in any way inappropriate. At the end of this conversation Shah asked Begum to speak to Yule.
Begum spoke to Yule in the backroom away from other staff and asked her what she could remember about the incident with the customer, as per Shah’s request. Yule said she could not remember the call, and that she was aware that two other customers had made a complaint that week.
Begum told Yule that it was “definitely not the two patients who had raised the anonymous complaint”; the tribunal heard that Yule found that to be an “odd statement” as the complaint was anonymous.
Yule suggested that she would message Shah about it, and Begum told her “not to bother” and that it was “nothing to worry about”. Begum also said she “had her back”, which Yule told the tribunal “upset her further” as she didn’t understand why Begum needed to have her back.
The tribunal heard that Yule became “upset, anxious and angry” and asked Begum who had actually brought her name up in the first place. Begum told her it was Shah. The tribunal heard that Yule felt “very angry” and like she was being “targeted” by Shah.
An exchange – which the tribunal has not enclosed – between Yule and Shah began on WhatsApp at 3:59pm and continued until 12:50am. The tribunal heard that Yule felt Shah was “rather aggressive”, and the exchange left Yule “extremely upset”. She also told the tribunal that Shah’s version of the call with Begum was different to what she had been told directly by Begum.
On 8 February, Yule spoke to business manager Mr Dolan about the events and he said he would speak to Shah. Later that morning, Shah asked Yule for “five minutes” in the staff room, and, while Dolan – who is aware of Acas Code of Practice – was present, no minutes were taken of this meeting. Dolan said he typed up the minutes “immediately after” but a copy was not given to Yule.
The tribunal heard that Shah and Yule were “talking over the top of each other”, but the conversation ended with Shah telling Yule to “go downstairs, hand her keys over and to leave”, adding that it was her “last day at work” and that she “no longer” worked there. Yule was upset and tearful, and told Kinghorn she had lost her job.
Dolan told the tribunal he thought Yule would return to work once the matter had been resolved and did “not understand” that she had been dismissed, but also said he “did nothing” when she told her co-worker she had been dismissed. The tribunal did not accept this as it is “inherently implausible for a manager to not do anything or say anything when an employee hands in her keys and publicly announces that she has been dismissed”.
Shah told the tribunal he dismissed Yule because she had “attacked his credibility”, he had “lost all trust” in her and that she was “disruptive to the business”, but the tribunal favoured Yule’s evidence that Shah was “angry with her” and terminated her employment.
The tribunal said Shah had “attempted to rewrite history in order to suit his own narrative” and that both Shah and Dolan’s evidence was “not truthful” as it was provided in an attempt to “mislead [Yule]” and “cover up” the wrongful dismissal.
On 9 February 2022, after Yule’s dismissal, Mrs Shah – Mr Shah’s wife, who also worked for HHP and had responsibility for HR matters – contacted her external HR adviser and wrote a letter to Yule on 10 February inviting her to an investigation meeting. But in the meantime Yule had contacted her GP, Citizens Advice and Acas to obtain advice, alongside claiming for benefits.
The tribunal said that during this time HHP went through a “lengthy process of arranging and rearranging disciplinary hearings in an attempt to backtrack and put right what it had done wrong”.
Yule did not attend the meetings arranged by Mrs Shah, and she declined wage payments as she believed them to be “fraudulent” as she was no longer an employee. The tribunal heard that Yule was declared unfit for work because of her mental health as a result of the treatment she received at HHP.
Judge Arullendran said the attempts to arrange disciplinary hearings and pay Yule’s wages amounted to a “cynical attempt by [HHP] to try and cover up its mistake” and said it was “disingenuous and it has been calculated to undermine [Yule’s] credibility and prevent her from pursuing her claim for compensation in the employment tribunal”.
The tribunal found Shah’s failure to follow any kind of process “entirely unreasonable” and awarded a 25 per cent uplift of the compensatory award, in light of the unfair dismissal. It upheld Yule’s claims for unfair dismissal, wrongful dismissal, accrued and outstanding holiday pay and unauthorised deduction of wages, and she was awarded £9,867.51.
Paul Reeves, partner at Stephenson Harwood, said the case was a “stark reminder” for employers to follow a fair process, and warned: "Employers acting in the heat of the moment may have to pay significant sums to compensate an employee who is unfairly dismissed,” adding that “it's follow the process or be prepared to pay the price”.
Ian Jones, director and principal solicitor at Spencer Shaw, said employers hoping to paper over any cracks in a dismissal could pay the price. “Any attempt to cover one’s tracks by trying to mislead the tribunal is doomed to failure,” he said, adding that, if mistakes are made in a process, the best way of dealing with them is to acknowledge them and “try to put them right, properly, by applying a fair procedure – not trying to rewrite the past”.
HHP has been contacted for comment. Yule could not be reached.