What are we to make of the headline “Train driver who played tarantula prank on colleague was wrongly sacked”? Just another bizarre employment tribunal case, or another lesson on how not to approach a disciplinary process? Let’s retrace the thread. 
In Richardson v West Midlands Trains, it was reported that train driver Jonathan Richardson took it upon himself to “elicit momentary shock”, in the tribunal’s words, from a colleague (Driver A) at West Midlands Trains who “disliked creepy-crawlies”, by placing the shed exoskeleton of a tarantula in her pigeonhole. Her reaction was to call him a rude name comprising a seven letter adjective and a four letter noun. So far, just over the top banter? 
However, he then decided to repeat his previous act, this time with a shed snakeskin. Driver A, despite not being greatly distressed and not in need of time off work, was encouraged to report this as bullying. Three days later, Mr R was suspended; two months later, he was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct. The letter of apology to Driver A that he produced soon after the suspension was never shown to her. 
We find ourselves once again looking at our old friend, the range of reasonable responses. In deciding that WMT’s decision fell outside it, the tribunal cited a number of factors. Mr R’s request to call witnesses was unreasonably refused. No proper attention was paid to the extent of training given on bullying and harassment. The investigation that preceded the disciplinary hearing was described as “noticeably one-sided”. Driver A’s concession, no doubt consistent with her name calling, that this had really been little more than over the top banter was given insufficient weight. The “childish prank” had not caused considerable shock that could have led to catastrophic accident or significant business interruption. The possibility of common sense informal resolution had been ignored. Once the acts had found themselves classified as bullying, the subsequent process was self serving. The dismissal was unfair. 
Mr R successfully applied for reinstatement, and full reimbursement of lost wages. There was no deduction for contributory fault. The tribunal considered four factors – workforce perspective, working relationship with Driver A, trust and confidence, and training requirements – and decided that there were no grounds to refuse a reinstatement order. 
If WMT had paused for an independent outside view before suspending Mr R, they might have saved themselves a great deal of time, resources and embarrassment. Did this not cry out for the two of them to be called together for a face to face apology and handshake, before the “bullying” label could gain (eight) legs and be spun out of all proportion? 
Do you have a workplace dispute that calls for a second opinion? Especially before it escalates out of control? We can help. Contact David Cooper on 0121 325 542 or via dmc@coxcooper.co.uk . 
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