It’s not uncommon for a football commentator to dismiss an off ball confrontation between two players as just a case of ‘handbags’. More often than not there has been minimal physical contact even though one or both might be claiming that they have been the subject of a grievous assault. Employment Associate Chris Davies explores this in more detail.

It might be regarded as a well-established colloquialism but the meaning of the term may be lost on some or so it might seem following the recent case of Arnold Clark Automobiles Ltd v Spoor.

The facts were that Mr Spoor was a motor vehicle technician based in one Arnold Clark’s automobile workshops. He had seen that the apprentice was having a problem getting the printer to work and he tried to help suggesting a few times that it just needed paper loading. However he became annoyed when he was ignored and he grabbed him by the collar, which resulted in a short scuffle.

The matter was reported to the Branch Service Manager but as Mr Spoor had already apologised and the two had shaken hands, it was decided that formal disciplinary action was not required. However, an off-site HR officer was notified and asked to keep on record that a letter of concern had been sent and that there had been ‘some handbags between two guys here”.

That would have been an end to the matter but on reading that there had been a physical confrontation the decision was taken in HR that there had to be a formal investigation and disciplinary hearing. The company operated a zero tolerance policy towards such conduct whatever the degree of violence. The resulting disciplinary hearing conducted by the HR officer led to Mr Spoor being summarily dismissed on grounds of gross misconduct despite his 42 years’ service; exemplary disciplinary record and the earlier decision of his manager.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Mr Spoor claimed unfair dismissal.

Fortunately, the Employment Judge was familiar with the reference to the incident being an incident of handbags and in his judgment referred to the term as “a local colloquialism for something understood to be a petty and insignificant disagreement”. It was recognised that this was very much towards the lower end of physical violence as the local workshop management had found. It had not been reasonable that their views had not been given further consideration. It was held that the dismissal was unfair having regard to all the circumstances including of course Mr Spoor’s previous exemplary long service record.

The case clearly shows particular care is needed before summarily dismissing an employee who has spent their entire working career with one employer. The fact that management had made a decision that the matter was not sufficiently serious as to warrant formal action had effectively cast doubt on this amounting to gross misconduct from the outset even though the employer had the laudable aim of showing zero tolerance towards violence.  It is perhaps ironic that whereas previously it has been highlighted that HR opinions can have too great an influence on the final management decision in a disciplinary situation the problem here was that the HR decision makers that had given insufficient weight to the views expressed by management.

For further information, please contact:

Chris Davies, Associate, Employment

T: 0161 836 7936


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This blog is intended only as a synopsis of certain recent developments. If any matter referred to in this blog is sought to be relied upon, further advice should be obtained.