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Published: 24 October 2017
Area of Law: Employment

To suspend or not to suspend?

Ben Stokes was suspended from his job as cricketer and vice-captain of the England cricket team on 28 September. This can’t have been an easy decision for his employers, or at least it shouldn’t have been. Decisions to suspend an employee require careful consideration, even more-so when involving behaviour outside of work. Employers should bear this in mind before deciding upon immediate suspension as a response to allegations of misconduct.

Suspending or dismissing individuals without substantiating the allegations in any way can have seriously damaging consequences for a business, so it is key to avoid making rash decisions. 

In the case of Ben Stokes, the England team management didn’t suggest that he was guilty of any criminal offence, but were still able to act, demonstrating that they were taking the allegations seriously. This was especially important, given that the police have not laid any formal charges against Stokes. 

This case was made distinct from the majority in that it was a wholly public incident. However, it is not unusual for employers to face serious situations of a similar kind, where incidents have occurred either inside or outside of the workplace. In these instances, employers often feel a need to act quickly so as to avoid appearing negligent or complicit. However, where this leads to instant dismissal or suspension, it can be harmful, with unwarranted disciplinary actions leading to claims of unfair dismissal.

The words used to communicate with or about the employee in question need to be chosen carefully, just as any actions taken need to be well-considered. As with all forms of justice, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ must be applied to cases such as these, and bringing an open mind to such situations is vital.

Suspension should only be considered if the incident is sufficiently concerning or if extensive further investigation is required. In the majority of cases, on-the-spot dismissals are inadvisable and assumptions of guilt should never be made based on CCTV footage or media reports alone.

One recent example where an employer was overly hasty to act on allegations of misconduct, was in the case of Ms Agoreyo against the London Borough of Lambeth. Ms Agoreyo was alleged to have assaulted a primary school pupil in her care and was suspended on the grounds that the investigation needed to be conducted fairly. However, this was deemed to be an incoherent and illegitimate justification for suspension, because there was no suggestion that she would interfere with potential witnesses or with the evidence. Ms Agoreyo therefore succeeded in her claim of breach of contract.

Instead of immediately deciding to suspend, employers should weigh up all of the information at their disposal. If emergency services are involved or should be involved, employers should work closely with them throughout any investigations. This will mean all parties are on hand to both give and receive any necessary details and therefore acquire the ability to make an informed decision. Where appropriate, the employee in question should be kept in the loop, so holding a disciplinary hearing may be advisable. This will let the employee know what they should expect moving forward and what their rights are, as well as giving the employer time to consider any disciplinary actions.

It is always difficult for employers when the actions of, or allegations against one of their employees bring their organisation into disrepute. However, the best course of action is always one which is careful and considered, not impulsive or overly reactive. In a time when a business is under additional pressure and scrutiny, unfair dismissal cases are surely the last thing an employer wants to deal with.

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