The recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case of Ramphal v. Department for Transport concerned the dismissal of an employee following an audit of his expenses account. Mr Ramphal, as part of his job, was required to spend a lot of time on the road. He was entitled to receive subsistence for this. He had a company hire car and a company credit card to pay for the car and other reasonable expenses incurred. Following an audit in 2012, concerns were raised in relation to Mr Ramphal's expenses for excessive fuel use, use of the hire car for personal reasons and suspicious purchases, for example, buying two cups of coffee.
The Department for Transport appointed Mr Goodchild to act as both the investigating and disciplinary officer. He had not previously acted in this capacity so met with HR officers, familiarised himself with the DFT's disciplinary procedure handbook and made particular note of the distinctions between misconduct and gross misconduct and the appropriate penalties. Following the disciplinary hearing, Mr Goodchild sent a first draft of his report to HR, which although this was partly critical, also contained some findings favourable to Mr Ramphal. At this point, Mr Goodchild's recommendation was for a finding of misconduct and to give Mr Ramphal a final written warning. There followed approximately six months of communications between Mr Goodchild and HR leading to a drastic change in Mr Goodchild's findings and recommendations as to sanction. The overall finding became one of gross misconduct, and the sanction became summary dismissal.
Mr Ramphal raised a claim in the Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal. The Tribunal held that the decision to dismiss Mr Ramphal was based on as much investigation as was reasonable in the circumstances and that the decision was within the band of reasonable responses available to an employer. Mr Ramphal appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal who allowed his appeal, setting aside the decision on unfair dismissal, and remitting the case back to the Employment Tribunal.
HR departments are often involved in disciplinary investigations. However, this case provides both employers and employees with useful guidance as to exactly how much involvement and influence HR should have in such matters. The crucial point is that HR (assuming they are not the nominated decision maker) should be limiting its advice to questions of law, procedure and process while avoiding any comment or involvement on the issue of culpability. Therefore, significant influence by HR in the outcome of an investigation could potentially compromise the fairness of the investigation process and result in an unfair dismissal.