Last year a tribunal in Ireland ordered retail giant IKEA to pay an employee £23,000 in compensation. The employee had been sacked for stealing a milkshake that cost 97p. The issues and legal principles covered would similarly apply to tribunals in the UK. So what disastrous dismissal mistake did IKEA make and how can you avoid it?
Ian Fortune (F) had been employed at IKEA’s Ballymun branch in Dublin since 2009 and primarily worked in its restaurant area. F’s manager saw him drink a milkshake that would have ordinarily been sold for the equivalent of 97p. However, the manager did not see F pay for it. As a result, F was suspended and later made subject to disciplinary action. He was accused of stealing a 97p milkshake which IKEA considered to be gross misconduct.
F didn’t turn up to the investigatory meeting or the disciplinary hearing. He was on annual leave which had been booked and agreed to prior to the suspension, so he didn’t receive the relevant notifications. IKEA reached a decision in F’s absence and he was sacked for gross misconduct.
F didn’t appeal against this decision internally because, as he explained to the tribunal, he now had “no faith in the company’s internal process”. Instead, he commenced legal action for unfair dismissal.
At the tribunal, F explained that he had taken the milkshake but was adamant that it was no more than a genuine and honest mistake. He also stated that on a different occasion he had personally witnessed a group of fellow employees consuming beverages after their shifts finished and not pay for them. Therefore he wasn’t the only one and he had been singled out for disciplinary action by IKEA.
The tribunal concluded that, given all the circumstances, the employer could not justify the dismissal and awarded around £23,000 in compensation.
The employer made a number of errors but the biggest was arranging an investigatory meeting and disciplinary hearing at times where the employee was unavailable through no fault of his own.
- Ensure you check for pre-booked annual leave dates for all relevant parties when arranging times and dates for investigatory meetings and disciplinary hearings. It could prevent a whole host of problems.
- Should an employee take something without paying for it, don’t jump to conclusions. Ask them what their motives were before making any judgement call. Arguably, had F been given the opportunity he would have paid for his milkshake when challenged. Most honest people would and genuine mistakes do happen.
- Treat everyone the same and don’t single employees out for disciplinary action. As there was a culture of taking “free” drinks, IKEA should have dealt with F first and then advised all staff that this was not permitted.
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