Does the dismissal stand up in court?
This week we will discuss an interesting case involving an IKEA employee who picked up a double meal voucher at his workplace and had to pay for it with instant dismissal. The employee went to the subdistrict court to claim that the dismissal should be set aside. Subsequently, there was even an appeal.
The case concerns an IKEA employee who has been employed since 2016. The employment contract is governed by the IKEA collective agreement and the IKEA Group Code of Conduct. IKEA has rules about providing meal vouchers to employees who work on Sundays.
The Code of Conduct includes the following statement: "Cases involving theft, fraud or any other form of improper use of resources owned by the IKEA Group or a co-worker are strictly prohibited." [...] "If you are suspected of violating the Code of Conduct, you may be subject to an internal investigation. This may lead to disciplinary measures and even termination of your employment."
The collective agreement states: "Employees must comply with the house rules as they apply in the branch in which they work." The house rules state: "From Sunday 14 April onwards, we will be working with vouchers in the staff restaurant on Sundays. (...) So everyone who works on Sundays is entitled to 1 voucher." The house rules were communicated to the staff by a message in an IKEA newsletter.
On 3 November 2019, the employee in question picked up a meal voucher from the staff reception during his working hours at around 12:00. The employee collected another voucher at 16:00 on the same day. On 4 November 2019, a conversation with the employee took place. During this conversation, employee was asked to clarify the two meal vouchers he picked up on 3 November 2019 and was confronted with the camera footage taken at the staff reception on that day. IKEA informed employee orally on 4 November 2021 that he was being dismissed with immediate effect.
Judgment of the Subdistrict Court
Since the employee did not agree with the immediate dismissal (which also had far-reaching consequences for his entitlement to unemployment benefits), he started a case with the subdistrict court (in Dutch: kantonrechter). The judge annulled the instant dismissal. According to the subdistrict court, there was no urgent reason for immediate dismissal. IKEA had not laid down its promoted policy clearly enough in writing.
However, the subdistrict court did dissolve the employment contract as of 1 March 2020 due to a disrupted labour relationship. According to the subdistrict court, it is clear that according to IKEA there is no longer any (proper) support for a further fruitful cooperation. Therefore, the employee’s employment contract was still terminated, although not with immediate effect.
The employee did not agree and lodged an appeal.
IKEA took the position that the collection of two meal vouchers, and the failure to honestly declare this, whether or not viewed in conjunction with each other, led to a legally valid instant dismissal. IKEA has argued that its policy is sufficiently clear in writing. The house rules state that every employee working on Sunday is entitled to only one meal voucher.
However, the Court of Appeal did not agree with IKEA: taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the Court of Appeal was of the opinion that there were no urgent reasons justifying immediate dismissal. The employee acknowledged that he had picked up a second voucher that day, but argued in his defence that the second voucher was not intended for himself, but for a colleague, and that he had ultimately left the voucher unused in his locker. The court of appeal follows the employee in this.
The house rules do state that every employee working on Sunday is entitled to one meal voucher, but they do not state that it is not permitted to take a meal voucher for a colleague. Nor does it follow from the fact that every employee had to sign for his or her meal voucher at the reception desk. What is certain is that employee left the second meal voucher unused in his locker on 3 November 2019 and that the voucher could no longer be used in the staff restaurant after that day, and that employee knew this.
Employee also immediately retrieved this meal voucher from his locker and showed it to IKEA when confronted with the camera footage. It must therefore be assumed that the employee had no intention of appropriating the value of the voucher. In the opinion of the Court of Appeal, the instant dismissal was too severe a sanction for the employee's behaviour and IKEA should have imposed a less severe sanction, also in light of the fact that the employee had argued, without being challenged, that he had always performed excellently during the employment contract and that the instant dismissal had had a major impact on him.
Contrary to the subdistrict court, the Court of Appeal held the opinion that there was no disruption of the employment relationship that is such that IKEA cannot reasonably be required to allow the employment contract to continue. According to the Court of Appeal, IKEA could have sufficed with giving a warning. The employment contract is therefore reinstated as of 1 March 2022.
You can read the judgment here
This judgment demonstrates once again that employers are well advised to deal carefully with (the intention of) instant dismissal. Of course, we also advise employees to seek immediate assistance if they are faced with such a situation. The first steps in particular can be crucial. In case of doubt, always consult one of the employment lawyers at SPEE advocaten & mediation.