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Clearing up a disciplinary mess after birthday celebrations

Published 10 March 2021
It’s not uncommon for an employer to confuse what may be a genuine mistake for misconduct  - and it can lead to serious trouble for an employee.

Wendy had worked as a cleaner at her local community centre for over 15 years when a customer complaint resulted in her facing a desperate fight to save her job.

In urgent need of help Wendy to contacted the Castle Associates Employee Support Centre for assistance with her case.

Wendy was accused of being reckless and throwing away a personalised 18th birthday cake when she cleaned the centre, the morning after a party was held there. This  was prior to lockdown in March 2020 .

Wendy was quizzed by her bosses about the claim. The uncut, two-tiered cake was said to have been in a large box left on a table. A picture of the cake in its box was provided.

Wendy was adamant she would have noticed the box shown in the photo, and that she did not see it. Wendy insisted that she simply threw away rubbish left on tables and on the floor.

The furious family lodged a formal complaint and took to social media to express their anger. Wendy was suspended from work.

A male workmate angered by the treatment of Wendy took to social media to respond to the family post about the cake and to defend her.

That member of staff was later disciplined and dismissed. He subsequently claimed unfair dismissal against the employer, and it is not known officially how that matter was resolved.

Wendy made it clear to her bosses that she had no involvement in that case. Her case was dealt with separately.

When our representative first spoke to Wendy she again insisted she did not see a cake and that if she did throw it away it was an honest mistake.

Wendy was covering for a sick colleague on the morning the incident allegedly occurred. In text message exchanges with her manager about the job, Wendy was told ‘clean up, stick everything in the bin, lock up and get off home.’

At a disciplinary hearing Wendy faced an allegation of acting without due care and attention and bringing the employer into disrepute. She was warned dismissal was a potential outcome.

The evidence to support the allegation included a copy of the email complaint and a picture of the personalised birthday cake.

The family were demanding several hundred pounds in compensation. They said it was to cover the loss of the cake and for injury to the birthday girl’s feelings

At the original disciplinary hearing our representative challenged the evidence to support the allegation. Wendy had been provided with pictures from social media that showed the cake had in fact been cut.

Our representative presented the images to the hearing and asserted that the family was being untruthful. The hearing was adjourned to allow further disciplinary investigations to take place.

The hearing reconvened two weeks later. The complainant now said that they had forgotten the cake had been cut, what was left of it had been left in a box inside a black bin bag on the main table.

Our representative provided the hearing with a copy of the text message Wendy received from her manager, which effectively said clear the tables and put everything in the bin.

He said given that instruction and the fact the cake box was in a bin bag meant if Wendy did throw it away it was a genuine and understandable mistake.

Our representative said the mistake was compounded by the manager’s instruction to bin everything.

He asserted that there was a difference between misconduct – doing something you know you should not do - and a mistake, as in Wendy’s case.

The hearing was also told there was actually no evidence to show the cake had been thrown away. Our representative highlighted the inflated and dishonest original claim for compensation and subsequent change of story as evidence that should raise doubt about the honesty and credibility of the allegation.  

Wendy had something of her own to celebrate when she was later cleared of the allegation.


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