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Is a punch in the face on a par with a threat?

December 2015

MBNA Ltd –v- M. Jones UKEAT /0120/15/MC

In this festive season it is always worth bearing in mind the perils of alcohol fuelled disputes at Company events.

The 20th anniversary bash for the major finance company MBNA at Chester Racecourse should not really have been any cause for concern.  Staff were told that it was a work event and that normal standards of behaviour and conduct would apply.

The event began at 7pm but Mr Battersby had started drinking at midday and Mr Jones at about 5 pm.  At one point in the evening Mr Jones had his arms around Mr Battersby’s sister.  Mr Jones came over and punched him in the face.  After the event Mr Jones and others went to a Club.  Mr Battersby knew he was there, waited outside and sent several expletive ridden texts to Mr Jones inter alia telling him the various ways he would rip his head off. 

They did not meet again, however, the threats were never carried out and indeed Mr Jones did not even read the texts until the following day.

Unsurprisingly, the Respondent held a Disciplinary Investigation bringing gross misconduct charges against both Mr Battersby and Mr Jones.  Mr Jones was dismissed and Mr Battersby received a formal final written warning.  Mr Jones then brought a claim contesting that his treatment was unfair as he had been dismissed and arguing that he too should have been given a final written warning.  The Tribunal agreed and found for Mr Jones in that the dismissal was unfair.

On appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, on a judgment handed down last month, His Honour Judge David Richardson upheld the appeal and found the dismissal to be fair.  Relying heavily on the test in Hadjioannou –v- Coral Casinos, his Honour found the Tribunal had failed to consider whether the decision had been made in truly parallel circumstances which made it unreasonable for the employer to dismiss.  There was clearly a distinction to be drawn between a deliberate punch in the face at a workplace event and the threat (albeit violent and truly inappropriate) after that event which was never carried out.  The circumstances were not the same and the employers were entitled to draw a distinction. The proper test is not whether the final warning was too lenient but whether the dismissal was fair.

I have noticed over the years that Companies are getting much more cautious about celebratory events.  All too often they are the breeding grounds for violent confrontations or sexual harassment.  My advice to employers is always to make sure, if you are holding such an event, that everyone understands normal workplace conditions of behaviour are expected and this certainly helped MBNA on this occasion.

If you are having an office festive party may I wish you a very enjoyable one and a very Merry Christmas.

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