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Employee unfairly dismissed for reporting sheesha den, tribunal finds

Employers are legally obliged to put up no smoking signs in the workplace

A former charity employee was unfairly dismissed for reporting smoking in the office, an employment tribunal found earlier this month.

The tribunal ruled that Farah Ahmad should be compensated £30,000 for injury to feelings as she was subject to detriments for making a protected disclosure, and a further £1,607 for breach of contract.

Ahmad was dismissed from the Human Relief Foundation (HRF) after she reported finding cigarette ash in mugs, and sheesha, hookah pipe equipment and other substances with glass bottles on a table in the workplace.

Ahmad, who is asthmatic, found smoking equipment in the office in August 2020.

A report shared with Third Sector by Ahmad's lawyers said that there was a strong smell of smoke in the office, and a sign read "HRF Sheesha Cave".

According to the report, the president of HRF tried to enter the office on 5 September but could not find the key.

Messages to a WhatsApp work group chat read “[We’re] all a bit screwed”, “caught red handed”, “there is no sorting this”.

Ahmad reported her findings in a whistleblowing letter to management on 11 September 2020.

Following Ahmad’s report, human resources representatives informed HRF staff that the office would be closed for investigation.

The report from Ahmad's lawyers claimed that HR reassured Ahmad that colleagues named in her report would not be in the office at the same time as her.

But upon her arrival the colleagues were inside and outside the premises, and two of the colleagues intimidated Ahmad and caused her to fear for her safety.

The tribunal ruled that Ahmad had been put in an "uncomfortable situation".

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Ahmad was then dismissed on 8 October 2020. 

The tribunal found that Ahmad was subjected to detriment from HRF staff for making a protected disclosure, and that she was unfairly dismissed under section 103A of the Employment Rights Act 1996. 

Sarah Tahamtani, head of employment at Clarion, told HR magazine that employers have a legal obligation to protect employees who have made a protected disclosure.

She said: “Employers must not dismiss an employee or subject an employee to a detriment because they have made a ‘protected disclosure’, irrespective of their length of service.”

Tahamtani noted that this case shows employers can face repercussions for not meeting their legal obligations to protect whistleblowers.

She added: “This case is a helpful reminder that the financial repercussions to employers of falling foul of these obligations can be significant, with compensation for unfair dismissal being uncapped in whistleblowing cases and detriment cases also being eligible for injury to feelings compensation.”

In July 2023, Royal Mail was ordered by an employment tribunal to pay £2 million to an employee who was bullied after blowing the whistle.

Employers should have a whistleblowing policy in place to ensure they do not meet legal claims for mishandling disclosures, Tahamtani explained.

Read more: Royal Mail to pay record £2 million to bullied whistleblower

She continued: “Employers should ensure they have whistleblowing policies and reporting structures in place to help deal with genuine concerns. 

“Where concerns are raised, employers should beware of taking any action towards that individual which could be seen as a detriment or related to the fact that they have raised concerns.

“As ever, it is imperative to be clear in communicating the reason for any action or dismissal

“After all, if you don’t communicate your motivation, the individual can be forgiven for concluding that the reason for your action is the fact that they have blown the whistle.”

Gavin Scarr-Hall, health and safety director at the employment law advisory firm Peninsula, reminded HR magazine that employers are legally obliged to ensure that employees do not smoke at work.

He said: “While smoking laws are not specific to health and safety legislation, they are still specific and unambiguous. 

“Most people work within enclosed spaces and with the law stating it is illegal to smoke in an enclosed workplace, public building or any mode of public transport, employers need to remain mindful of this. 

“Otherwise, they could face a fine of up to £200. By installing the correct measures employers can ensure no laws are broken.”

Under the law, businesses are required to display ‘no smoking’ signs and ensure that people don’t smoke in enclosed work premises or shared vehicles.

The Department for Health rules that businesses can be fined up to £2,500 if they do not stop people smoking at work.