Whilst the existence of a Staff Handbook is certainly an essential tool for employers, there is little benefit in having a manual if it is simply going to remain on your shelf gathering dust. If you have a Staff Handbook in place then, for heaven's sake, use it! These are the harsh words recently delivered by the UK's Employment Appeal Tribunal in Blackburn v Aldi Stores Ltd.
In this case, the well-known chain of stores with responsibility for employing a large workforce had, quite reasonably, very detailed internal policies and procedures in place that governed the working relationship between management and staff; these policies were clearly laid out in an extensive Staff Handbook which was presented to new staff on joining. So far so good!
However, when Mr B, a former LGV driver for the Chelmsford depot, raised an internal grievance in accordance with the store's grievance procedure, it appeared that the existence of the Staff Handbook was either forgotten about, or blatantly ignored, a fact which the Appeal Tribunal was not prepared to overlook.
Throughout the course of his employment, Mr B had genuine concerns about aspects of the health, safety and training offered at the store's depot. In particular, vehicle safety and a perceived lack of training for new joiners were his paramount concerns; this caused Mr B to informally raise his concerns with the then deputy transport manager for the depot. To compound matters, the deputy manager's reaction to his concerns was not one of a sympathetic and reasonable employer. Instead, he chose to wave off those concerns by swearing and hurling abuse at Mr B.
Unsurprisingly, Mr B saw fit to take the matter further and this time raised a formal grievance by way of a letter (setting out his initial concerns which now included the additional allegation of being sworn at by a superior) which he presented to the regional managing director, Mr H. It is not clear from the judgment whether Mr H paid any heed to the Staff Handbook at this juncture, however, a thorough investigation of the grievance was conducted and the Appeal Tribunal was not critical of the store's actions in this regard. A detailed 'outcome letter' was then presented to Mr B accepting his grievance in part. The store acknowledged that improvements were needed in health and safety maintenance, and conceded that the present level of training offered to new staff was not at an acceptable level. However, the allegation of swearing and verbal abuse by the then deputy transport manager was rejected. Unhappy with the inference that he was a liar, Mr B raised an appeal against his partial victory. It was in relation to the hearing of the appeal that matters fell apart for the store.
An appeal hearing was convened for exactly one week following receipt of Mr B's appeal. During this time, as per its own Staff Handbook appeal procedure, the store was required to appoint an impartial appeal administrator, re-investigate any grounds of appeal (in this case, interviewing additional work colleagues not previously questioned) and review any new evidence that may have arisen since the initial investigation. An appeal hearing was convened and held by none other than self-appointed, Mr H; the very same manager that investigated the grievance and prepared the outcome letter. Therefore, it came as no surprise to Mr B that his appeal was peremptorily rejected; to suggest otherwise would require Mr H to admit that his initial decision was wrong. Four days later Mr B resigned and filed a claim against the store for unfair constructive dismissal.
The starting point for the Tribunal was the Staff Handbook. In particular, it noted that the manual contained a detailed grievance procedure which provided for the initial grievance to be dealt with by a section manager. In the event the employee then wished to appeal any grievance decision, a senior manager would then be appointed for the purposes of the appeal.
Mr B asserted that the store's failure to provide an effective and impartial appeal process clearly breached the implied term of trust and confidence that exists in an employer / employee relationship. The Tribunal agreed; the store's failure to follow its own policies and procedures (clearly laid out in the Staff Handbook) was capable of amounting to, or contributing to, a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. An appeal should always be dealt with impartially and wherever possible by a manager who has not previously been involved with the case. As an alternative argument, Mr B claimed that the contents of the store's Staff Handbook also formed the express terms and conditions of his employment. The wording stated in the manual is clear in this regard.
"You are bound by the regulations of the company. The employee handbook, job description, procedures manual and application form part of this contract of employment".
Both Mr B and the store were to be bound by the contents of any policies and procedures contained therein. Therefore, the store's failure to follow an impartial appeal process was also tantamount to a possible breach of contract.
The importance of a Staff Handbook cannot be underestimated; it provides a useful tool and point of reference for employers and employees in determining what is considered acceptable and appropriate conduct in the workplace. Aldi was fortunate enough to have a Staff Handbook in place, but its purpose was defeated by the store's failure to acknowledge its existence. Mere existence is not enough!
To be effective, a manual must not only be regarded as an important source for addressing various employment related issues, but should also be the starting point for any disgruntled employer or employee when seeking guidance on what to do next. If you are fortunate enough to have a Staff Handbook in your workplace then do not consign it to history; make sure that you are familiar with its contents and act in accordance with them; to disregard its existence is worse than not having a Staff Handbook at all.
To view the Employment & Pensions News October 2013 click here.
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