In cases where serious misconduct is alleged an employer may find it helpful to suspend an employee pending further investigations. The recent High Court case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth provides useful guidance on this process, consolidating much of the existing law and warning of the consequences if the suspension is based on a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.
In Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth, Ms Agoreyo was a primary school teacher with 15 years’ experience. In November 2012 she had taken new employment teaching 5-6 year olds. During the first two months of her employment it was alleged that Ms Agoreyo had used inappropriate force on three occasions when dealing with two challenging pupils. The Head Teacher conducted an internal investigation into two of these incidents at the time and found that Ms Agoreyo had in fact used reasonable force in the circumstances. It was then agreed after numerous requests from Ms Agoreyo that she would receive additional support in the classroom to assist with the two pupils concerned.
Whilst Ms Agoreyo was waiting for this additional support the Executive Head of the school informed Mrs Agoreyo in December 2012 that she was being suspended on full pay pending a full investigation, where she would have an opportunity to put forward her account. The letter informing Ms Agoreyo of her suspension explained that her suspension was a neutral act and was not a disciplinary sanction. Upon receiving the letter, Ms Agoreyo felt she had no choice other than to resign as she felt the decision to suspend her made her position untenable.
Following her resignation, Ms Agoreyo brought a claim in the County Court. Ms Agoreyo alleged that due process was not followed in suspending her and in doing so the school breached the terms of her employment. The County Court however disagreed and found in favour of the school. The Court believed that the school was duty ‘bound’ to suspend Ms Agoreyo in light of the serious allegations. Ms Agoreyo appealed the decision to the High Court. The High Court overruled the County Court and sided with Ms Agoreyo.
The High Court stated that Ms Agoreyo’s suspension was a knee-jerk reaction and that the Executive Head of the school had failed to give weight to the Head Teacher’s earlier investigation, had failed to consult with Ms Agoreyo and had failed to explain the reason for the suspension and, in doing so, failed to consider alternatives to suspending Ms Agoreyo. Whilst on the face of it, suspending a teacher accused of using excessive force on a child was an understandable reaction, Lambeth’s handling of the matter rendered that decision unlawful.
So what do you need to think about when considering suspension?
• Check whether there is a contractual provision in the employee’s contract that provides you with an express right to suspend the employee.
• Review your employee handbook and in particular the Company’s Grievance and Disciplinary Procedure. It is important you are familiar with and follow the policy.
• Pro-actively consider alternatives to suspension in order to demonstrate that it is not a knee jerk reaction. The process should be documented to evidence the reason for the decision and why alternatives were not appropriate in the circumstances.
• If possible, discuss the matter with the employee before making a decision. This will make the decision making process more balanced as you have actively sought and considered the employee’s view in the matter.
• If the employee is suspended consider the effects this will have on their reputation and how best you can limit any negatively. What will other employees be told?
• Whilst suspended the employee needs to have confidence in the investigation and so there needs to be good communication between the parties.
When allegations of serious misconduct arise you may feel it necessary to suspend an employee and if you require advice on this matter please contact Sarah Scholfield on 0161 833 5689.