14th September 2020

The Law behind the Headlines: Debenhams staff ‘in tears after Zoom sacking by manager who then just hung up’

(Mirror online, 15 August 2020)

Have you ever read the employment law stories that have made the headlines and wondered, ‘is this for real?’ or ‘how did the employer get away with that?’ (or even, ‘could I get away with that too?’). We take a look at the stories making the news and explain how we think these employers are, or should be, applying employment law to the information reported.

2,500 redundancies

Debenhams says it will cut 2,500 jobs, mainly across its UK stores and distribution centre, as it struggles to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

One Debenhams worker claims a number of workers were dismissed during a team Zoom call which left them in tears.

The worker said: “Our store manager read a letter out telling us we were being made redundant. Then he just hung up. He didn’t answer any questions, he just left us to talk among ourselves. We were shocked. One of my colleagues is pregnant, another has only just recovered from a bleed on the brain, one suffers with depression and one lady has been with the company for over 20 years”.

A spokesman for the company said: “Those colleagues affected by redundancy have been informed and we are very grateful to them for their service and commitment to Debenhams”.

Is it wrong to dismiss someone on a team Zoom call?

You might be thinking no wants (or likes) to deliver bad news, but difficult decisions have to be taken. Of course, it would be preferable to meet the affected employees in person, however, the coronavirus pandemic has made that all but impossible in most situations.

Or, you might be thinking that the manager should not have handled the redundancies in this way regardless of the circumstances.

The answer, in fact, lies somewhere in between these two opposing views.

The Law

On the basis of what has been reported, Debenhams is sadly one of many businesses that have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and have decided, like many others, that redundancies are unavoidable. But can employers inform their employees they have been made redundant on Zoom?

Whilst there must be a meeting and there are certain things you should consult on (read more details about redundancy consultation here Redundancy during Coronavirus: Part 1 and here ‘Redundancy during Coronavirus: part 3), whether a meeting takes the form of a face to face meeting, a telephone call or on Zoom is a matter for the employer to decide. Meetings can even be conducted in writing e.g. an exchange of letters or emails. However, except in the context of a collective consultation meeting with trade union or employee representatives where a group meeting is expected, consultation meetings with individual should be just that: individual. A failure to hold a one-to-one meeting will call into question the fairness of the redundancy process, as does Debenhams’ alleged failure to consult at all.

The worker also claims that, “One of [her] colleagues is pregnant, another has only just recovered from a bleed on the brain, one suffers with depression and one lady has been with the company for over 20 years”. Are there any potential issues here?

It is not known whether Debenhams selected these individuals from a pool or decided to close the store and make everyone redundant, but there are some important issues for employers to be aware of when applying selection criteria:

  • Any employee with more than 2 years’ continuous service qualifies for unfair dismissal protection meaning you can’t get away with just telling him or her of their redundancy. A fair process must be followed before the decision is taken and that includes a meaningful consultation.
  • It is pregnancy discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably on the grounds of her pregnancy or a pregnancy-related illness during the protected period from conception to the end of the statutory maternity leave. That includes selecting a pregnant woman for redundancy because she is pregnant.
  • The employee who had a bleed on the brain and the employee suffering from depression may be considered disabled and therefore protected from disability discrimination. For example, it could be discrimination if their being disabled made them more like to be selected for redundancy because they’d taken the most sick leave but their sickness was connected to a disability.

More information about making decisions about who should be in the ‘pool’ from which selection for redundancy will be made can be found here

How do I avoid criticism for the redundancy process I adopt?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because it’s important: The success of a redundancy process lies largely in your preparation, making sure you are clear about your business reason and ensuring you have carefully thought through how you will consult, what about, with whom and when.

If you are going to conduct meetings in any other way other than face to face, at the very least let your employees know in advance. Preferably, get their consent if you can. It may be acceptable to inform everyone for the first time at a team meeting that redundancies are proposed but otherwise, avoid team meetings at all costs. Finally, it can help to explain what the redundancy process will be and operate an open-door policy to allow employees to ask questions.

If you need any advice about whether you are facing a redundancy situation and how to go about making redundancies, get in touch with Blackadders’ Employment Team.

Donna Reynolds, Partner
Accredited by the Law Society of Scotland as a Specialist in Employment Law & Discrimination Law
Blackadders LLP


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