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Royal Mail postman case raises interesting employment law questions

Published: 9th March 2021
Area: Employment

We have all probably seen the recent headlines in respect of the postman who has been suspended after ignoring and leaving a 72 year-old woman, who had fallen on her doorstep in the snow while taking a delivery, saying that he was just too “knackered” to help.  The family of the lady concerned has even called for the postman to be dismissed.

Is Royal Mail right to suspend, discipline and/or dismiss him?

To many, it will be shocking to see someone having no regard for another person’s well-being. Not only did he not help the woman, it would appear that he made no attempt even to report the incident to anyone.  Some may also question the postman’s actions from an ethical point of view, which a very different question to whether he should facing disciplinary action (and how severe any such action should be) from his employer.

By the same token, others may see this as very cut and dried,. They may argue that Royal Mail has suffered reputational damage as a result of this footage, therefore leaving them no other option but to dismiss him.  Whilst there may well be merit in such arguments, such incidents will nearly always require a thorough investigation before any disciplinary process is commenced.

What if the incident had happened on the way to work?

We might consider this incident in a different context.  For example, an employee sees an accident in front of them whilst driving to a work meeting and does not stop to help, perhaps due to not wanting to be late. Or perhaps believing that someone else will stop to help?  As there are no clear identifiers, such as a uniform, would it even be considered by the employer as something which requires disciplinary action?  If the employee was then to mention the incident at work, there may well be some peer pressure to reflect on their actions, but perhaps the employee would not be subjected to such media attention and calls upon his employer take action.

To what extent can employers question their employees’ morals and ethics? 

This case raises interesting questions as to how much of an employee’s life is controlled by their employer.  To what extent can an employer get involved in their employees’ morals and ethics?  Of course, employers can be held vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their employees, but should an employer’s control over their employees’ actions go further?  In this case, it does not look like any negligent act by the postman caused the woman to fall. However, if such an act had occurred, then Royal Mail could be exposed to personal injury claims.

There have been many cases where inappropriate posts on social media have resulted in employees being dismissed by their employers, at least in part due to the negative impact it has had on a business’ reputation.  Whilst in general employees are free to use their social media platforms to post as they please, that does not necessarily mean that they cannot be subject to disciplinary action from their employer.

Why it’s important for employers to set out clear expectations of their employees

It is difficult to comment on whether or not Royal Mail’s action to suspend and potentially discipline this individual is appropriate.  However, if there are policies contained within the Royal Mail’s employment contracts, setting out expected standards for employees to observe whilst wearing the uniform and carrying out their duties, then Royal Mail could potentially rely upon such clauses.  They would of course have to follow appropriate procedures before any disciplinary action is taken, as if they dismissed the employee without doing so, it would leave them open to an argument that the dismissal was at least procedurally unfair (assuming the employee has at least two complete years’ service).

Proper procedures nearly always require that a thorough investigation is conducted including, but not limited to, establishing whether there are any good reasons for the behaviour. For example, in this case, did the postman act in the way he did because of a disability?

This means that Royal Mail, whilst they have apologised for the actions of its employee, should not act in haste in relation to any disciplinary process commenced. To do so could mean that they end up having to deal with costly and time-consuming employment tribunal claims.

What does this recent case highlight for employers?

We will have to wait to see the outcome of this. For now, this is an example of the importance of having well-documented contracts, policies and procedures in place, and to make employees aware of what is expected of them. It also highlights the importance of conducting proper investigatory and disciplinary processes, no matter what the perceived seriousness of the actions are.

We can help to ensure your employment contracts, policies and procedures protect your business

If you would like us to carry out a review of your policies and procedures, then please contact Ewan Carr or another member of our employment team.

Alternatively, you may like to view our 360+ website, which provides various information and guidance notes.

Our employment team is ranked as a Leading Firm in the Legal 500 2021 edition.

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