268: Unfair dismissal: when working relationships break down
In this blog we review the decision of Gallcher v Abellio Scotrail Limited where the Scottish Employment Tribunal considered whether a dismissal without following a procedure was fair in relation to an irretrievable breakdown in the working relationships between two senior managers.
Ms Gallacher worked as Head of Customer Experience and Standards at Abellio Scotrail. Her relationship with her line manager deteriorated over several years as a result of disagreements over pay, working hours and staffing. During a performance review meeting, Ms Gallacher was suddenly told that she was being dismissed due to this irretrievable breakdown in working relations which was damaging to the business at a crucial time. No warnings or other procedure had been followed, and she was not given a right of appeal. Ms Gallacher subsequently brought various Tribunal claims, including a claim of unfair dismissal.
The Employment Tribunal held that Ms Gallacher’s dismissal was within the band of reasonable responses open to Abellio and that the lack of trust and confidence between two senior managers at a difficult time for the business came within the category of fair reasons for dismissal of ‘some other substantial reason’. It agreed with the employer that following a procedure would have served no useful purpose and could even have worsened the situation.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed Ms Gallacher’s appeal, confirming that although it would normally be unfair to dismiss an employee without following a procedure, this was one of the rare cases when a procedure could be dispensed with because it would have been futile. It was clear that there was an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship between two senior managers who needed to be able to work together. It was also clear that Ms Gallacher had no interest in resolving matters. Her dismissal was therefore found to be fair.
This case illustrates that, in very limited circumstances, dismissing an employee without following a procedure may be considered to be within the range of reasonable responses open to an employer. In this case, it was significant that there was a personality clash between two senior managers at a time when the business was in financial difficulties, and that the employee had no interest in improving the relationship. It is also worth noting that she was dismissed for ‘some other substantial reason’. Had she been dismissed for misconduct or poor performance, her dismissal is likely to have been procedurally unfair.