A facilities assistant was fairly dismissed after an investigation revealed her level of non-business related internet use was “substantial”, an employment tribunal has ruled.
The Liverpool tribunal found national law firm Weightmans was entitled to fire Mrs T Hall, a facilities assistant who worked for the company from February 1995 to January 2019, over her internet use while at work, which included online shopping.
The tribunal dismissed the claim of unfair dismissal lodged by Hall, saying the investigation and dismissal procedure followed by Weightmans was “textbook”.
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Hall’s behaviour was first called into question after an incident that happened when she brought her adult daughter and two grandchildren into Weightmans’ offices during her lunch break. One of the children, a toddler, was seen crawling towards the automatic sliding doors, and it was considered both were at risk.
Because of this, Hall was invited to attend an investigatory meeting on 25 October 2018, at which Hall alleged the children were left unaccompanied because she had been working on her computer at the time.
Weightmans requested a copy of her internet search history. The report showed that at the time Hall had been online but was “apparently browsing the net for personal purposes”.
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A further investigation was undertaken of Hall’s internet usage for the entire month of October, which showed consistently high use for non-work related searches across most working days. The tribunal was presented with 117 pages of data, which showed hundreds of entries recording access to shopping websites including Evans, Shoeaholics, Ryanair, easyJet and Debenhams.
A second investigatory meeting took place on 7 November, which continued the discussion about Hall’s family being in the office and her internet use. Hall told the investigating officer, Rachel Ivatt, there wasn’t any risk to her grandchildren and she did not accept there was cause for concern with regard to her non-work related internet searches.
She said she may have “briefly” looked at a site then left it open while working.
While the investigation was being carried out, a separate altercation between Hall and a co-worker happened in which Hall allegedly used the words “twat” and “disgusting”.
Ivatt completed an investigation report on 29 November and recommended disciplinary action in relation to both Hall’s internet usage and her family being unsupervised in the office. She contacted Hall on the morning of 29 November to discuss the report’s findings.
Hall was invited to a disciplinary hearing on 9 January 2019, and three allegations of misconduct were raised: concerns around her family’s presence on 23 October, non-work related internet usage and her behaviour toward her co-worker. Hall was warned she may be dismissed if it was concluded her conduct amounted to misconduct.
Sarah-Jane Howitt, partner at Weightmans, was appointed as disciplinary officer. Hall maintained her internet use during working times was not cause for concern and that she had not used abusive language towards her co-worker.
Howitt wrote to Hall on 21 January dismissing her without notice for gross misconduct. She concluded the “substantial” level of non-business related internet usage in October 2018 amounted to gross misconduct because it “showed contempt for the trust placed” in Hall.
She also considered Hall’s conduct towards her co-worker a fundamental breach of Weightmans’ people policies.
Hall appealed the decision to dismiss her, but this was ultimately dismissed.
Commenting on the case, Joanne Moseley, professional support lawyer and senior associate at Irwin Mitchell, told People Management she did not think Hall would have been dismissed because of her internet use without the other complaints against her.
Many employers are relaxed about their employees’ online habits, particularly if they regularly work additional hours to complete tasks, she said. “But you may be concerned if an employee who is in at nine and out of the office again at five every day spends his first hour browsing the internet,” she added.
Where employees do have access to the internet at work, employers should have a policy setting out whether they can use it for personal reasons, what sites they shouldn’t access and whether personal access should be limited to breaks, Moseley said.
Thalis Vlachos, employment law partner at Gunnercooke, added that an employer's staff handbook should be the starting point for setting out expected behaviour. “The staff manual will confirm the employer’s code of conduct around reasonable email and internet usage at work,” he said.
Employers should also have a policy on monitoring internet usage, which should be highlighted in the staff handbook, Vlachos added. “It might be more justifiable in certain roles to add additional monitoring like CCTV or to speak to IT to find out what websites staff have been accessing and why,” he said.