A flying instructor whose boss threw a cup of tea at him in a dispute over an aircraft has been awarded more than £19,000, after an employment tribunal found he was unfairly and wrongfully dismissed.
Phil Jones worked as the only fixed wing flying instructor at Flylight Airsports in Northamptonshire from 2006 up to his dismissal in 2017.
He left his job following an argument that erupted in August 2017, after discovering that the aircraft he usually flew had not been serviced despite two colleagues having previously said they would do so.
Jones booked an alternative aircraft to get on with his day but, after bumping into director Ben Ashman, his line manager, he made what Ashman interpreted to be a sarcastic comment about the unserviced aircraft, Cambridge Employment Tribunal heard. Ashman retaliated and voices were raised. A client awaiting a flying lesson witnessed the dispute.
Evidence offered to the tribunal was described as “fragmented”, but it was established that as Jones walked towards the airfield to conduct his lesson, followed by Ashman, he called Ashman a “twat”. Ashman retaliated by stating: “Bollocks, Phil, don’t call me a twat.” He then threw a cup of tea at Jones, which missed.
After further threats were exchanged, Ashman reportedly said: “Right, I don’t want you flying in my aircraft. Pack your stuff and leave.” Believing he had been dismissed, Jones left, saying he would “see [Ashman] in court”, and did not return to work in the days following the incident.
The date of Jones’s dismissal was contested at tribunal, as he claimed he had been summarily dismissed on the day of the incident, 1 August, with no reason given or hearing held. Ashman stated that Jones was dismissed for alleged gross misconduct and serious insubordination following a disciplinary hearing on 21 August, which Jones did not attend after describing the process as a “sham”.
A letter confirming the outcome was sent to Jones on 21 August, confirming the summary dismissal and giving him the right of appeal.
Judge Sigsworth acknowledged the size and capabilities of Flylight Airsports, stating: “The respondent is a small business, with no experience of disciplinary proceedings and limited HR support.”
However, he found that Jones had been summarily dismissed on 1 August without a disciplinary process, as he was not contacted to say he had not been fired following the “pack your stuff” comment.
While Jones was found guilty of gross misconduct, without a fair procedure the dismissal was “inevitably” unfair. Accounting for his length of service and previously clean disciplinary record, the judge determined that following a correct procedure would have returned a 25 per cent chance of fair dismissal from the six-employee flying school following the incident.
The dismissal was also found to be wrongful, as the misconduct was not severe enough to repudiate Jones’s contract of employment.
Andrew Willis, head of legal at CIPD HR-inform, said that despite the size of the company and its limited HR capabilities, which resulted in a slight reduction to the compensation awarded, all employers need to ensure they are aware of due process.
“Even small employers cannot avoid the application of the Acas code of practice on disciplinary proceedings,” he said, adding that the case illustrates that acting in the heat of the moment is never likely to result in a fair dismissal.
Carla Whalen, employment associate at Russell-Cooke Solicitors, said individuals should be granted time to calm down before action is taken. “If [Ashman] had told the employee to go home for the rest of the day to calm down and then taken the opportunity to get some employment law advice immediately, he may have avoided a tribunal claim altogether,” she said.
Jones was awarded £18,210.77 in compensation for wrongful dismissal with additional notice pay, after he was found to have contributed to his dismissal by 50 per cent by calling Ashman a “twat” and threatening to hit him. He received a total sum of £19,017.62.