Dismissal by text message costs restaurant owner £15K

When restaurant owner Chris Charalambous sacked his chef Mr Hillis, we doubt the insertion of a smiley face into his text would have saved him. The award concerned underpayment of minimum wage, breach of contract and holiday pay. The reputational damage following national press coverage is likely to be far more costly for Cail Bruich.

While the details of the case and award (a little over £15K) are interesting, the greater interest here is the publicity the case has received. The tribunal decided the owner was in the wrong and the coverage featured prominently in the Scottish local and national press, including describing the owner’s attempt to avoid payment of the award by folding the limited Company. A cautionary tale here of the extent of reputational damage that can result from being regarded as to have fallen short of the standards expected of a good employer. Whether or not Cail Bruich pays any compensation to Hillis, it will take a long time for local people to forget the very public shaming of the owner for being, in the tribunal’s eyes, a poor employer in this instance.

Hillis (a chef) challenged his employer Chris Charalambous (the owner of Cail Bruich) regarding his hourly rate, specifically whether they were meeting their National Minimum Wage responsibilities. He worked 60 – 65 hours each week and was paid just over £300, well short of the National Minimum Wage.

Hillis raised this with the owner and, following this discussion he called in sick, and sent a text asking when his next shift would be and rostered times. Mr Charalambous’ responses by text message, shown to the tribunal, left Hillis under the distinct impression he had been fired. The text message, littered with expletives, finished with the phrase ‘we don’t want you back’.

While Hillis didn’t have sufficient service to bring an ordinary unfair dismissal claim, he was able to show that his dismissal was related to his attempt to assert a statutory right (i.e. entitlement to minimum wage) and thus constituted victimisation, which meant that the normal 2 year rule for unfair dismissal did not apply and he was able to bring his claim, successfully in the event.

The tribunal found that he had been underpaid by more than £130 week, was unfairly dismissed for raising this with his employer, and was awarded in total £15,157.

Learning points from this particular case?

  • Don’t dismiss employees by text – make sure you follow a full and fair procedure
  • Do remember that ANYTHING you send in writing to an employee, including by text, is apt to be produced in court. If you wouldn’t like to see your comment quoted in the newspapers, don’t send it!
  • National minimum wage – check, particularly in high hours environments like hospitality and care that employees are receiving at least the national minimum wage for each hour worked.
  • Holiday – where you have variable hours employees, make sure holiday pay is based on the average pay of the preceding 12 working weeks.

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