A geography teacher who failed to return to work after a sickness absence prompted by “work-related stress” was unfairly dismissed and then victimised after receiving a “damning” reference from his employer, a judge ruled.
The Manchester Employment Tribunal found Iqbal Haq’s dismissal from Marsden Heights Community College (MHCC), part of the United Learning Trust, amounted to “procedural unfairness” after the school dismissed him before he returned from a doctor-certified sick leave. The tribunal consequently heard that the trust's decision was “rushed”.
However, employment judge Joanne Dunlop noted that if a fair process had been followed, Haq still faced an “85 per cent chance” of dismissal after refusing to attend performance meetings for months because of his “pride and obstinance”.
Haq’s claims of unfair dismissal and victimisation were successful, but his claims of racial discrimination and harassment were not upheld.
The tribunal heard that Haq was employed at MHCC as a geography teacher in 2015 until his employment came to an end in August 2022. During his employment he had received a promotion to senior lead practitioner, but relationships between Haq and the school began to “break down” in 2021-22.
Between April 2021 and June 2021 Haq’s lessons were monitored as part of a standard review process throughout the school. His observer – senior manager Ms Butler – made “positive observations as well as constructive criticisms” of Haq’s lessons, which resulted in her suggesting Haq receive “informal support” to aid his performance for a period of six weeks.
However, Haq did not attend the initial meeting set for his informal support plan and the tribunal heard Haq was “genuinely both offended and extremely defensive” about the plan as he considered himself to be “a leader within the school in terms of teaching practice”.
Having refused to meet with Butler, Haq raised a formal grievance against her on 21 June 2021. Days later he commenced sick leave for work-related stress and did not return to work before the school closed for the summer holidays.
He returned in September at the start of the new term and the tribunal heard Haq was “not willing” to meet with senior leadership. Following this, he was told in a letter that if he continued to refuse to attend meetings then the school would take disciplinary action.
Haq then commenced another sickness absence from 2 November and, in December, he provided a doctor's note advising him to “rest”.
Attempts were made to “move [the situation] forward” following his return in January 2022, but the tribunal heard Haq continued to be uncooperative and refused to attend a series of scheduled meetings with the headteacher, Alyson Littlewood.
He was then signed off sick again in May, and did not return to work until his dismissal in July. During this period, he filed a formal grievance against Littlewood, in which he accused her of racially discriminating against him.
A reconciliation meeting was arranged for 5 July, but Haq still had a medical certificate that gave him permission to be off work, which ran until 11 July. Haq’s union adviser and Littlewood suggested Haq return to work before the expiry of his sickness certificate, but Haq maintained he “would not break” his sickness absence.
Following this meeting, Haq sent an email to Littlewood threatening her with legal proceedings, and said he would be visiting his GP on 11 July to discuss his health, with a view to being certified to return to work on 12 July, after his health certificate ended.
A meeting was scheduled for the next day (6 July), but again Haq refused to attend.
On 8 July, the school’s attendance and dismissal panel wrote Haq a letter informing him of his dismissal, with the letter referencing a “breakdown” in relationships and observing that it “appeared unlikely that any future return to work would be successful or sustained”.
Following this, Haq applied for a role at another school and he claimed that, because Littlewood made “negative comments” about him in his reference, the school did not appoint him.
The tribunal determined that Haq was unfairly dismissed because of the school’s handling of its formal processes and its failure to wait until after the end of his sickness absence before making a ruling.
Dunlop said: “In our judgement, any reasonable employer would have waited for the expiry of Mr Haq’s sickness certificate on 11 July, to see whether he did return to work or, instead, whether another sickness certificate was produced. It was outside the band of reasonable responses for this employer to fail to do so.”
Consequently, it was ruled that the trust “rushed” to make a judgement on Haq, and the judge noted that no follow-up meeting had been scheduled after the reconciliation meeting on 5 July for Haq to reflect on the way forward.
Dunlop continued that if Haq had been given a very clear indication that he had reached the end of the road in his relations with the school and would face dismissal unless he returned to work on the expiry of his sickness certificate, “then his conversation with his GP would have been very different to a conversation in which he had already been dismissed”.
This amounted to a “procedural unfairness”, Dunlop said.
However, she noted a “dismissal may well have taken place” if the “unfairness” within the handling had not taken place. Consequently, the judge ruled there was “an 85 per cent chance that Haq would not have returned to work and only a 15 per cent chance that he would have managed a sustained and successful return”, ruling that his compensation should be reduced by 85 per cent to reflect this.
The judge also ruled that Littlewood was guilty of victimising Haq after she provided him with an “unusually damming reference” that had a “punitive flavour”, and said her negative review had been motivated by claims Haq had made against her regarding racial discrimination.
Employment lawyers' reaction
Tina Chander, head of employment law at Wright Hassall, said the case demonstrated why “it’s crucial always to follow the correct procedures, have proper policies and train staff to implement them correctly”.
She said despite it being “accepted that it was 85 per cent likely that Mr Haq would still have been dismissed, had the correct procedure been followed”, she noted “this was not sufficient for the tribunal to conclude that there was no chance that the outcome could have been different.
“All HR teams should clear space in their diaries to check the disciplinary and grievance policy regularly and make sure it’s in line with the Acas code of practice, and make time to ensure line managers are correctly trained on processes and that there’s consistency in how every case is handled,” she added.
Commenting on the “damning” reference, Ian Jones, principal solicitor at Spencer Shaw, said the case showed employers have a responsibility to be “truthful, accurate and fair”.
He said Littlewood’s reference “was significantly motivated” by Haq having made claims against her and noted “the strength or weaknesses in Mr Haq’s claims were irrelevant; it was the fact that he had made the claims and the unfairly negative reference had been given as a consequence that was the key point.
“I advise all employers, when giving a reference, to be as objective as possible, provide factual information only and where comments are made on capability or character that subjective views and bias are eliminated as much as can be.”
Joanna Chatterton, partner and head of employment team at Fox Williams, added that HR should provide guidance and training on drafting references, ensure a second pair of eyes has seen the reference – especially for employees who might have been the subject of a complaint – and ensure businesses have the responsibility for managing the reference process so that all references comply with the policy.
The United Learning Trust told People Management it was examining the judgment and seeking advice on whether to appeal. A spokesperson said: “We support our head and the school and believe they behaved appropriately throughout.”
Littlewood could not be reached for comment.