Employers can be faced with very difficult decisions where internal disciplinary proceedings arise from conduct outside of work. All the more so where that conduct raises a safeguarding risk which could impact on the employer's work and reputation.
Employees who work with children or vulnerable adults clearly have to comply with rigorous safeguarding procedures in the workplace to protect service users. More complex can be the question of whether such an employee has a duty to disclose a safeguarding risk arising from their own private life.
Within the education and child care sector, the rules on reporting a safeguarding risk arising from people the employee lived with (the disqualification by association rules) have been relaxed since 31 August 2018. Further details of these changes are available in a previous article, available on the Wrigleys website. The question of whether a headteacher was required under her contract to report her own relationship with a convicted sex offender was considered in the interesting case of Reilly v Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (a case which was considered before the disqualification by association rule change but to which the rules did not apply).
Despite the change in these rules, those working with children or vulnerable people are still likely to have a safeguarding duty to disclose to their employee where there is a risk of harm to children or vulnerable people arising from their own personal life. If the failure to disclose comes to light, the employee is likely to face disciplinary allegations including the potential damage to the employer's reputation as well as the breach of the safeguarding duty itself.
In a recent case, the EAT considered whether a probation officer's dismissal for failing to report that she was considered by social services to be a risk to her own daughter was unfair and in breach of her right to respect for private and family life.
Case details: Q v Secretary of State for Justice
The claimant (Q) was employed as a Probation Service Officer, a role which included safeguarding duties although it did not include work with children. Her daughter was placed on the Child Protection Register in 2014 following allegations that Q had been violent towards her. Q did not follow social services' advice to tell her employer about this and so social services disclosed the information directly to the Probation Service. After disciplinary proceedings, Q was given a final written warning for failing to report a potential safeguarding issue and she was demoted. In 2015, a Child Protection Plan was put in place for Q's daughter. Q failed to inform her employer despite having been advised that she should keep them updated. The Probation Service summarily dismissed Q for this failure to disclose and for reputational damage consequent on the way Q had dealt with social services.
Q brought a claim for unfair dismissal which was not upheld by an employment tribunal. It found that the dismissal was fair in the circumstances as a final written warning had previously been given in relation to the same conduct and Q was aware of her obligation to disclose. The tribunal commented that the claimant's actions in not disclosing "showed a lack of professional judgment regarding safeguarding issues which could have impacted on her work". This was the case even though the claimant did not work with children as part of her role.
The tribunal also found that Q's actions were clearly capable of bringing the employer into disrepute and undermining public confidence in the Probation Service. These actions included both the nature of the incident itself, which involved a child, and Q's refusal to engage with social services. As an employee of the Probation Service, with its integral role in the criminal justice system, the claimant was to be held to a higher standard of conduct than employees might be in other sectors. This included personal conduct outside work which was likely to damage the reputation of the Probation Service. The tribunal accepted that the reputational risk was heightened by the fact that the Probation Service was a statutory partner on Local Authority Safeguarding Children Boards.
When considering whether Q's human rights had been infringed, the tribunal determined that the interference with Q's right to respect for a private and family life was proportionate. The Probation Service's requirement to "ensure that its staff behave in a way which is commensurate to their obligations to the public in terms of safeguarding the vulnerable and children" was of particular relevance to this decision.
The EAT agreed. It held that, given the nature and importance to society of the employer's activities and responsibilities, and the importance of its relationship with Local Authorities as statutory partners, the tribunal was right to find the interference with Q's human rights was proportionate and justified, and did not render the dismissal unfair.
A key question in unfair dismissal claims is whether the employer acted reasonably in treating the reason for dismissal as a sufficient reason to dismiss. This question takes into account all the circumstances of the case. In this case, these circumstances included the employer's activities, policies, duties, standing in society and relationship with statutory partners. The employer was able to show that the importance of these to the organisation had been taken into account in the decision to dismiss.
In this case, the existence of a final written warning about the same issue put the employee on notice that she was obliged to disclose information about the involvement of social services with her family in future and made clear the standards expected of the employee.
When taking the decision to dismiss in gross misconduct cases, it is vital for employers to document clearly the contractual terms, rules, policies, or duties which the employee has been found to have breached. Employers should also explain in the outcome letter the importance of the relevant rules or duties to the organisation and why the breach is therefore a fundamental breach of contract. Where dismissal is because of reputational risk, employers should articulate the nature of that risk and why this risk arose from the employee's conduct itself and/or from the failure to disclose.
It is important to note that not all conduct outside of the workplace will have an impact on the employment relationship and properly lead to a disciplinary process. When deciding whether to take disciplinary action, employers should first consider whether the conduct has any bearing on the employee's ability to perform the role and/or raises reputational risks for the organisation.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.