Watch out for funny gifts at work – new case law to be aware of

If there is an appeal, this should be a full and fair process

If you have ever been on holiday and brought back something for a work colleague that might be considered a bit risqué, a recent case regarding a mug that was given as a gift between colleagues at work might be of interest.

The giver of the gift ended up being dismissed from his employment and here we look at the facts of the case and what employers can take from the judgment, which may help if they have to deal with a similar case.

The case

The case of Reed v CF Fertilisers UK Limited concerned a mug, which incorporated offensive language in its design, that was given by one colleague to another. The giver of the gift believed his colleague had taken the mug home; however, he had left it in a cupboard at work.

It was seen by a consultant working for the employer, who took offence at the language on the mug and lodged a formal complaint.

The employer investigated the complaint and the employee apologised and agreed that the words on the mug were unacceptable.

He had 20 years’ service, a clean disciplinary record and was given a number of good character references; however, he was summarily dismissed for bringing offensive material into the workplace.

It was acknowledged that the female consultant who had seen the mug had not been the target of the offensive language; however, the employee had completed some ‘respect at work’ training and was therefore aware that what might not be offensive to one person could be deeply offensive to another.

Following his dismissal, the employee lodged an employment tribunal claim for wrongful and unfair dismissal. This was unsuccessful, as the tribunal judge ruled that he believed the language used on the mug was objectively offensive and that dismissal was possible in such a case, although he did acknowledge that other forms of sanction were available.

Lessons for employers

It is important for employers to make sure that they have policies on harassment and equal opportunities and that these are communicated to employees, who should also receive training.

Employers should also be mindful of how they conduct disciplinary hearings, which includes the way the employee is told of the hearing and what information they should receive.

The hearing itself should be as thorough as possible and notes should be taken that accurately reflect what happened. Details of the decision reached and the reasons behind this decision should be made available to the claimant.

If there is an appeal, this should be a full and fair process.

Next time you see something when you are on holiday that you think may provide a giggle in the office, it is worth remembering that not everyone might find it funny and some may even be offended.

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