Employee fairly dismissed for her use of internet during working hours

In the following case, a long serving employee was fairly dismissed over her internet use while at work, which included online shopping.

Facts

The employee, Mrs Hall, had worked for a Liverpool based law firm, Weightmans, for nearly 24 years, most recently as a facilities assistant.

Her behaviour was called into question after she brought her two grandchildren to the office. When left unsupervised, one of the grandchildren, a toddler, was seen crawling towards the automatic sliding doors, which Weightmans considered put the child at risk of harm.

Because of this, Mrs Hall was asked to attend an investigatory meeting at which she explained that the children were left unaccompanied because she had been working on her computer at the time. Weightmans obtained a copy of her internet search history. The report showed that Mrs Hall had been online, but not for work purposes, and there was a further period of 1.25 hours earlier in the day when she was apparently browsing the internet for personal purposes.

A further investigation was undertaken of Mrs Hall’s internet usage for the entire month, which showed consistently high use for non-work related searches across most working days. The tribunal was presented with 117 pages of data, which showed hundreds of entries recording access to shopping websites including Evans, Shoeaholics, Ryanair, easyJet and Debenhams.

A second investigatory meeting took place, which continued the discussion about Mrs Hall’s family being in the office and her internet use. She denied that there was any risk to her grandchildren and did not accept there was cause for concern with regard to her internet use. She said she may have “briefly” looked at a site then left it open while working.

While the investigation was being carried out, there was an altercation between Mrs Hall and a co-worker in which Mrs Hall allegedly called her colleague a “twat”.

Mrs Hall was invited to a disciplinary hearing to discuss three allegations of misconduct; namely, concerns around her family’s presence in the office, non-work related internet usage and her behaviour toward her co-worker.

At the hearing, Mrs Hall denied there was any risk to her grandchildren by leaving them in one of the rooms, and did not accept there was any cause for concern with regard to her usage of the internet for non work related searches. She believed she may have briefly looked at a site then left it open whilst she moved away to undertake work, and visited other sites merely to delete emails from particular companies. She denied that she had used abusive language towards her co-worker.

Mrs Hall was issued with a final written warning for the incident with the family. However, Weightmans found that the misuse of the internet and Mrs Hall’s refusal to accept that it went far beyond clicking to unsubscribe or delete, and instead showed evidence of extensive web surfing during working hours, led them to conclude that they could not believe Mrs Hall. This was reinforced by Mrs Hall’s explanation about the incident with her colleague. They no longer found they could trust her, and believed the accounts of the in house IT experts on the internet issues, and the colleague on the altercation, as supported by two witnesses.

Mrs Hall was dismissed for gross misconduct.

She brought a claim in the employment tribunal (ET) for unfair dismissal

ET decision

The ET dismissed Mrs Hall’s claim for unfair dismissal.

It ruled that Weightmans had a reasonable belief in Mrs Hall’s misconduct. There was clear hard evidence of Mrs Hall’s internet usage, which was at odds with her explanation. Weightmans also had corroborative evidence supporting Mrs Hall’s abusive language towards her colleague in the form of two trusted longstanding employees.

The procedure followed, at least at the appeal, was text book.

Mrs T Hall v Weightmans LLP Case number 2405482/19

Comment

The dismissal in this case was ruled to be fair by the ET even though the employer had no clear rules as to how much employees could use the internet for personal purposes during working time. However, in most cases, it would be sensible for employers to adopt a policy stipulating acceptable and unacceptable use of the internet by employees while at work.

Warning: this news item is not a substitute for legal advice. The information may be incorrect or out of date and does not constitute a definitive or complete statement of the law. This news item is not intended to constitute legal advice in any specific situation. Readers should obtain legal advice and not rely on the information in this article.