A council worker has been awarded more than £20,000 and will be reinstated to his job after a Scottish employment tribunal ruled he had been unfairly dismissed during an investigation into an alleged dispute over tea breaks.
Colin Hart, a land and environmental operative working for Glasgow City Council, was dismissed after a colleague alleged he had threatened him with a hammer during an argument. However, the tribunal ruled his area manager did not have reasonable grounds to sustain his belief that Hart was guilty of the allegations.
Employment judge Lucy Wiseman added the decision to rely absolutely on the statement alleging the threat with the hammer was “flawed”.
Hart began working as a land and environmental operative for Glasgow City Council, based at the St Rollox depot, in September 2009. He was part of a rapid response team, consisting of a driver and one or two operatives, whose duties included assisting the refuse vehicle crew with collecting refuse bins.
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The rapid response team from the Western depot also assisted with the same duties.
On 6 September 2017, an incident occurred between the two teams after the St Rollox team believed the Western team had deliberately taken their tea break at the incorrect time in order to avoid assisting with the work.
Both teams reported the incident to their supervisors after returning to their respective depots and statements were taken from the men involved.
Michael Ryan, from the Western team, provided a statement later the same day stating the St Rollox team were angry about his team taking their tea break at 10am because they understood the tea break schedule had been changed to 9am.
He said he went to speak to Hart and another worker about the issue because they had claimed the Western team were “lazy bastards”, but walked away when they continued shouting. Ryan said he told a co-worker, Jon Russell, what had been said. Hart then approached Russell, who tried to calm him down.
Russell, who provided his statement on 11 September after returning from annual leave, largely corroborated Ryan’s account. But he added that Ryan had been “holding the side of his face” and said Hart had hit him.
He said Hart claimed he had pushed Ryan but did not hit him. Another confrontation occurred before Russell alleged Hart walked to his vehicle and returned with a ball-pein hammer.
Russell said he asked Hart what he intended to do with the hammer, and Hart responded: “Don’t think I won’t”. He then walked back to his vehicle.
The council suspended Hart following Russell’s statement. David MacIntyre, a supervisor at Western depot, was appointed to investigate the allegations Hart had assaulted Ryan and threatened violence towards colleagues with a weapon.
On 14 September, MacIntyre interviewed Hart, who told him the incident with the hammer “never happened” and denied he hit Ryan.
MacIntyre interviewed Russell, who responded “no comment” to “almost all” questions. He was interviewed again on 19 September, but again refused to answer questions.
MacIntyre interviewed the Western depot supervisor, who said no one on the day of the incident had mentioned a hammer, and Ryan did not say he was assaulted. He then interviewed multiple other workers who all denied having seen a hammer or assault take place.
But MacIntyre concluded in his investigation report that an incident had occurred and employees were “trying to play down the seriousness of what had taken place”. He said that given the severity of the allegations, the matter should proceed to a disciplinary.
Hart attended a disciplinary hearing, chaired by Raymond Sutton, an area manager, on 16 October, where the decision was made to dismiss him.
The tribunal heard that the disciplinary panel was unaware Russell had told MacIntyre during the hearing that he wanted to withdraw his statement. Russell was reportedly informed by the HR department that if he did so, he may face disciplinary action for providing false information.
Hart appealed the decision, but this was ultimately rejected. He then brought claims of unfair dismissal to the Glasgow employment tribunal.
The tribunal ruled Hart had been unfairly dismissed and order the council to pay him £20,126. Judge Wiseman said Sutton appeared to “blindly” rely on and accept Russell’s statement without testing it or taking into account other evidence.
The tribunal also ordered the council to reinstate Hart as an employee with all rights and privileges, including seniority and pension.
Joanne Moseley, professional support lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said employers were obliged to carry out a reasonable investigation into allegations of assault, but what is “reasonable” depended on the nature of the allegations.
“Investigators need to look for evidence to support the guilt and innocence of those involved,” Moseley added. “They also need to look at what other evidence is involved, such as interviewing any witnesses or ascertaining if anyone needed medical aid – not just automatically determining who is at fault.”
A Glasgow Council spokeswoman said: “We cannot comment on individual staffing matters. We acknowledge and accept the findings of the employment tribunal.”
Hart could not be reached for comment.