Can an employee lose their job for the actions of their relatives?

Benedict Plowden, the director of Transport for London (TfL), has stepped down amid reports that his wife is a core member of Insulate Britain, the protest group which is causing widespread disruption across the city's transport links.

Cathy Eastburn has been arrested 12 times in three years for her activism, including one time where she glued herself to a DLR train alongside a group of protesters from Extinction Rebellion.

It's unclear if there is a direct link between her actions and his departure so, although pressure may have been placed on him, his resignation could be unconnected.

However, the story has opened up an interesting discussion. No one should be pressured to resign and, if this was the case, there could be a risk of a constructive dismissal claim as Plowden has worked at TfL for over two years (he has been a director for 20 years).

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Pressure may well be applied in other ways, too.

Taking unfair action against an employee or bullying and harassing them due to the behaviour of someone they are connected to are all actions which could lead to that employee feeling as if they are being forced out of the door, which carries the same risks as mentioned above. 

While employers might be tempted to begin disciplinary proceedings against employees due to the actions of their relatives, dismissal is another story.

For someone's employment to be terminated there needs to a fair reason as to why, and being blamed for the actions of others is unlikely to be deemed as fair.

This is not always the case, however. In 1986 a claim went to court where an employee was dismissed from his job after his wife was convicted of theft. In Wadley vs Eager Electrical Ltd [1986] IRLR 93 the Employment Appeal Tribunal accepted that the wife’s conduct had genuinely led to the employer’s customers losing confidence in the employee and, therefore, the employer was justified in dismissing the employee under SOSR (some other substantial reason).

Some other substantial reason is considered a fair reason for dismissal but, for a ruling of this nature to stand, the employer needs to provide evidence that the actions of a relative or spouse has caused damage or disrepute to a company's reputation as a result of their connection to the offender.

It would not be sufficient to simply say that it ‘might’ have a negative impact, as the law requires a higher standard to be evidenced before allowing for any termination of employment.

The only other alternative could be dismissal over a breach of conduct, but this would only apply if the employee was actively involved in the offending act. Otherwise, they cannot be held responsible for the actions of others, no matter what their relationship. 

When it comes to any dismissal, employers need to apply a two-part test: it must be both fair, and ‘within the band of reasonable responses’ i.e., reasonable.

This means, in short, that employers should act as a reasonable employer.

We must ask, would it be reasonable to take action against an employee for the actions of someone they happen to be related to? This is the key question that any Employment Tribunal will consider when a case comes before them – to avoid being taken to tribunal all employers should keep this point in mind when considering what kind of disciplinary action to take.

So, while there is some case law that would support dismissal of an employee for the actions of someone else, the answer to this question would generally be no.

Alan Price is CEO at BrightHR