When your important client refuses to have one of your employees back at its office, as the employer, you naturally have to take steps to protect the commercial interests of your company and maintain a good business relationship with your client. At the same time, you have to balance the employment rights of your employee.
What are the legal issues?
If your first response is to dismiss your employee, without taking any steps to find a solution or take account of any injustice to the employee, there will be a substantial risk of a successful unfair dismissal claim. However, the tribunals recognise the difficulties for employers where there is third-party pressure to dismiss, coming from an important client. You must act reasonably before reaching a decision to dismiss.
What’s the nature of the problem?
The first step is for you to find out the reason why the client has objected to your employee, to see if the problem can be resolved. In some instances the reason may be perfectly clear. For example, there may have been an incident of misconduct at the client’s office, or an argument between the employee and senior personnel at the client’s workplace. In other instances it may be less clear: the client might disapprove of a particular working practice, which the employee could be asked to modify or correct to the client’s satisfaction.
Even where the situation is serious, a tribunal is likely to want to know that, as the employer, you have taken steps to resolve the issue. You will therefore need to have a written record of your discussions with your client. If possible, you should also have in writing from the client, their objections to your employee. Even though you may not be in a position to establish the truth of the client’s allegations, and you may not agree with the client’s actions, the commercial pressure may still provide sufficient grounds for a fair dismissal on grounds of some other substantial reason.
What about injustice to your employee?
If your client is adamant that they will have nothing further to do with your employee, you must consider what injustice might be caused to the employee when deciding whether or not to dismiss. Factors to take into consideration would include length of service and how satisfactory that service has been to date.
Alternatives to dismissal should be explored as this will help to address any injustice to the employee. If there has been a conduct issue at the client’s workplace, you will need to follow its disciplinary procedure. Clearly, where gross misconduct is proved within those disciplinary proceedings, you will have conduct as the reason for dismissal and need not rely on some other substantial reason.
Check your employee’s contract
You have more chance of a fair dismissal due to client pressure if the employee has been warned that the client may intervene to have him or her removed. It is not unusual for commercial contracts to include a clause that says that a client may ask a supplier to remove any employee whom the client considers unsuitable. On induction, employees should be informed of the importance of maintaining good working relations with the client and of the client’s right to insist on removal of employees, if it says so in their contract.
So whose side do you take? It will depend on each individual situation, which you must handle carefully, considering all the specific details, before you reach any decision. Listen to both sides of the case and seek to find a solution that suits all the parties – you as the employer, your employee and your client.