Q: One of my employees has just sent the company’s entire salary list to all our staff. This has caused uproar among my workforce. I accept entirely that it was accidental, but I still want to dismiss him. Will that be legally fair?
A: One preliminary question first – did the employee have any prior history of such carelessness or any relevant disciplinary record? If so, the answer to your question is probably yes; if not, potentially no.
This may sound an odd conclusion given the damage that the disclosure could do to your company. You may have grievances brought by employees upset about the disclosure of their own salary, or, in fact, more upset about what the disclosure of others’ salaries says about their own remuneration in comparison. The Information Commissioner could properly conclude that this was not corporate compliance with the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998 relating to personal data. Your corporate reputation, both as employer of choice and as trustworthy custodian of client data, could take a significant knock.
Nonetheless, the employment tribunals have long been reluctant to allow the fair dismissal of employees with previous good records who have just made an innocent mistake
A fair dismissal on competence grounds for a first mistake will generally require the consequences of the error to be actually or potentially dangerous to life or limb on a significant scale – airline pilots, train drivers, etc – and “mere” financial or credibility loss is unlikely to qualify. This is particularly the case if the employee in question owns up to the error and is prepared to make an appropriate apology for it to all those affected.
You are quite entitled to give your employee a suitable written disciplinary rocket but a dismissal could well be found unfair.