The Daily Mail has been having a field day with this case - and some of the readers’ comments on the website really do make me want to weep (I would add the words ‘for the future of this country’ if it didn’t make me sound exactly like my mother). But headlines-aside, once you look at the facts the case of Grochowski v Virgin Active Gyms is a simple reminder of the basics of unfair dismissal law.
Mr Grochowski, a Jehovah’s Witness, worked for Virgin as a fitness coach. He had had a number of run-ins during his employment (most notably after warning a gym member off yoga for fear it would open up her chakras and thus allow evil into her body). He had warnings, dating from 2011 onwards, after complaints from members that his frequent comments on religious matters made them feel uncomfortable. Later, colleagues complained about homophobic views he had raised in the staff room and at one point the police were called. But this is not a further case exploring the potential for tension between sexual orientation and freedom of expression of religious views. Rather, Mr Grochowski was given a further and final warning in September 2012 and then dismissed for breaching that warning, after sending a series of challenging emails to his bosses espousing his religious views on a variety of issues not immediately relevant to his day job, including Satanism and the iniquities of Halloween.
Unsurprisingly, he brought claims of discrimination and unfair dismissal. The former were dismissed - something which seems to confuse and delight the Daily Mail in equal measure. His dismissal did not occur on the grounds of his religion. The unfair dismissal complaint, perhaps - at first glance - surprisingly on the facts, was upheld. Virgin’s mistake seems to have been not marrying up the precise wording of the final warning with the precise reason for dismissal. The warning did not constitute a blanket ban on discussing religion in the workplace (I think it referred instead to a prohibition on such discussion where it might cause offence). Had it done so, the situation might have been reversed and there might have been a finding of unfair dismissal, though with a higher chance of a successful discrimination finding. As it was, the fact that he was dismissed for something not squarely covered by the wording of the final warning rendered the dismissal unfair. However, his compensation was the princely sum of £653.50, following a 75% reduction for contributory fault.
The case, from what I have seen, raises no new law, but is a useful reminder of the need to retain clarity and consistency of reasoning between the various stages in a disciplinary procedure, as well as reinforcing the fact that it is legitimate to seek to circumscribe the way employees seek to disseminate their religious views, whilst still of course respecting their right to hold those views.