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Tribunal rules that sisters were unfairly dismissed for surfing the net at work

Two sisters who lost their jobs for surfing the internet at work have won their claims of unfair dismissal.  The two ladies were employed as administrators at a property service company.  They were dismissed for gross misconduct after visiting various sites (including EasyJet, Virgin and Boots) which were not connected with their work.  The employment tribunal in Aberdeen ruled that their dismissals were unfair and has ordered that the company pay the women £7,600 in compensation.  Employment Judge, Reg Christie, took the view that that no reasonable employer would have dimissed the ladies under these circumstances, though the compensation award was reduced by 25% to reflect the extent to which the two employees had contributed to their dismissal.

At the disciplinary hearing, both employees seemed to accept that they had been surfing the net for reasons which were not work-related though there was dispute as to whether the time spent had been excessive.

The tribunal's award here was relatively modest (£3.3k for one employee; and £4.3k for the other) but it does illustrates some of the dangers for employers who dismiss for (perceived) misuse of the internet.  It also provides a reminder for employers that they should not necessarily treat every contravention of an IT accepatble use policy as 'gross misconduct'.  In this case, the two ladies had, between them 32 years' service with their employer, and there was evidence that one of the disciplinary hearings had been concluded in less than 10 minutes.

The message for employers here is to delineate carefully what it regards as acceptable and non-acceptable IT use and to communicate that policy clear to employees.  Then, it is important for employers to apply that policy in a way that is proportionate and measured.  Clearly employers are on stronger ground when they dismiss employees for accessing websites with illegal or sexual conduct but this does not relieve employers of the need to carry out a full investigation and the need to give employees a fair opportunity to put accross their version of events.

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