A hairdresser and beauty therapist was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled, after her employer failed to substantiate complaints about her behaviour and went into an investigation having already made her mind up about the outcome.
The tribunal was told employees had reported Mrs R Lovelady as “a bit of a bully” who was “offensive in her tone and attitude”. It was also claimed she engaged in inappropriate conversations with customers that were often of “a sexual nature” and involved “vulgar toilet talk”.
However, the tribunal did not believe a “reasonably thorough and fair investigation” had been carried out into the issue, with evidence consisting of “hearsay and opinion”. It ruled the dismissal was unfair, but noted that the claimant’s behaviour at work left her at risk of fair dismissal and reduced her payout as a result.
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Lovelady was employed as a hairdresser and beauty therapist at Daniel James Hair & Beauty in Colwyn Bay, north Wales, on a 16 hours per week contract, from March 2016 until her dismissal on 19 February 2019. She took a period of maternity leave between February and November 2018, but regularly attended the salon for social visits during this time.
Two of the claimant’s colleagues made it known to the salon’s owner, Mrs J Fowler, that they found Lovelady to be overbearing and “unfairly critical” of fellow employees. The tribunal heard they reported she made “snide” remarks, particularly about perceived untidiness.
On three occasions in 2018, Fowler had informal conversations with Lovelady about her behaviour around colleagues and in front of customers, but none of them constituted formal disciplinary hearings or warnings.
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The tribunal at Mold heard that issues with Lovelady’s behaviour accelerated on her return from maternity leave in November 2018. She was not able to work any hours over and above her contracted hours, because the business had lost a number of customers, and as a result felt she was being deprived of opportunities.
Another salon employee reported to Fowler that she had been pressured by Lovelady to reduce her Saturday working hours for Lovelady’s benefit. The tribunal heard that this marked the start of a problem with “bitchiness and bullying”.
In February 2019, Fowler received further reports from employees of Lovelady creating a “negative atmosphere” in front of clients, while Fowler was away from the salon on holiday. WhatsApp messages from 9 February seen by the tribunal included Fowler responding to a colleague that “since [the claimant] has returned she has not been friendly or professional”, and that she was “going to tackle this problem next week”.
On 11 February, Fowler met with Lovelady and subsequently gave her written notice that she was suspended pending an investigation into an allegation of gross misconduct. Four days later, she wrote to Lovelady again with ‘investigation results’, putting six allegations to her in relation to her conduct and inviting her to a meeting on 18 February.
Fowler conducted interviews with staff and selected customers about Lovelady’s conduct, with her husband – who was also an employee of the business – present. However, the contents of the meetings were not recorded and the allegations put to Lovelady did not include dates or sufficient detail.
Lovelady responded to the allegations in writing, denying misconduct but accepting that she was struggling to settle in, and that the dynamics of the salon had changed since she returned from maternity leave.
At the 18 February meeting, Lovelady asked what would happen next and was told a decision would be made as to whether she was to be “let go or not”. The tribunal heard that Lovelady was “shocked” to hear this, and had not understood beforehand that the meeting was about a potential dismissal.
A dismissal letter was sent to Lovelady on 19 February, with her employment terminated on 20 February. Lovelady sent an appeal notice on 3 April 2019, but this was not accepted by her former employer, on the basis that it was five weeks late and did not present any new evidence.
The tribunal accepted that the respondent “had reason to suspect that the claimant’s conduct on some occasions could amount to intimidation and bullying”, and the dismissal would fall within the band of reasonable responses to this behaviour.
However, it noted that an employer must act “fairly and reasonably” in reaching such conclusions, and it is not enough to “take sides”. The judgment said that the respondent’s mind “appears to have been made up about the claimant’s
culpability when she received WhatsApp messages [...] on 9 February 2019, prior to the commencement of the investigation”.
It found that Fowler had not taken statements from any witnesses in her investigation into Lovelady’s conduct, and the evidence therefore consisted largely of “hearsay and opinion”.
Fowler’s position as the effective investigating officer, dismissing officer and appeals officer was also noted to have risked the process being unfair.
Fowler was ordered to pay £524.44 in damages to Lovelady, an amount that was reduced in light of the fact that, while the dismissal was unfair, Lovelady’s conduct still put her at risk of a fair dismissal.
David Harris, managing partner of DPH Legal, said the case highlighted the importance of employers following process. “A failure to follow that process will mean that the dismissal is automatically unfair,” he said. “So it's not even a question of the individual having to argue through a tribunal, it's just a question of what damages will arise as a result of that.”
He added that “the important message for all employers is, in any termination situation at all, to always take advice and always follow a thorough process, particularly where the individual has more than two years’ service”.
Thalis Vlachos, partner at Gunnercooke, said employers face “a number of hurdles” when carrying out a dismissal fairly. “Even where you suspect someone is guilty of, let’s say, bullying behaviour, you've got to undertake a fair and proper investigation,” he said.
“You can't show you've acted reasonably in all the circumstances unless you’ve got evidence of your decision-making processes. That's the bottom line here.”
Daniel James Hair & Beauty has yet to respond to a request for comment. Lovelady could not be reached for comment.