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A spoonful of "Sugar"...or a bitter pill?

 18th Mar 2013

The PR circus is in town again and this time it’s in respect of court proceedings between Lord Sugar, and his ’Apprentice’ from the 2010 TV series.

Ironically, Stella English, the Apprentice in question, came through the series without those two famous words, “you’re fired”, being directed at her, only to find herself bringing a case for constructive dismissal against Lord Sugar. The case has been heard, with judgment pending.

Proving a case of constructive dismissal can be tricky for employees. To succeed in a claim, the employee has to show that their employer has broken a significant term of the employment contract - just being unreasonable in some way isn’t enough.

Stella English claimed that Lord Sugar was not taking her life and future seriously. However, Lord Sugar maintained that she had an untrusting and suspicious nature, and was full of "conspiracy theories".

With such disparate views being offered, it’s easy to see how disputes arise, and worsen.

Constructive dismissal is where an employee resigns in response to their employer having breached an important term of the employment contract.  The employee must then show that it was the breaking of the contract that caused him/her to leave, and not some other reason.

The term can be either express or implied. An example of breach of an express term would be where an employer fundamentally changes an employee's duties without being contractually entitled to do so, or does so without the employee’s agreement.

Breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence is often relied on by employees where their relationship with their employer has irrevocably broken down.  This may be as a result of the employer failing to treat the employee with dignity and respect or failing to properly deal with a grievance.

Where an employer has breached an important express or implied term of the employment contract, an employee is entitled to treat him or herself as having been "dismissed". The employer's conduct is often referred to as "a repudiatory breach".  If the employee resigns as a result, s/he is said to have “accepted the breach”.

It is important to note that it may not be just one incident that amounts to repudiatory conduct; sometimes it is a series of incidents or pattern of behaviour which, taken as a whole, amounts to such conduct.

The full facts of the Sugar/English proceedings are not known, but this kind of high profile case should serve to make employers, and employees alike, mindful of the intricacies of employment law.

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