In Mr J Muir v Astra Zeneca UK Limited, a former AstraZeneca scientist with a mental health disability has won his unfair dismissal and disability discrimination claims. This followed the biopharmaceutical company sacking him for behaviour deemed gross misconduct without considering the impacts of his disability. As such, a remedy hearing will be scheduled to determine his compensation.
Below, we explore what happened and the employment tribunal’s judgment. If you’ve been unfairly dismissed and want help claiming compensation, contact Redmans Solicitors to discover your eligibility.
AstraZeneca Knew About Dr Muir’s Mental Health Disability
Unfair Dismissal Claim Background
Dr Muir (“The Claimant”) began working for Astra Zeneca UK Limited (“The Respondent”) on 5 January 1998. He was an associate principal scientist who reported to Alan Watt, one of the directors. The AstraZeneca scientist also had a mental health disability due to depression and anxiety disorder.
Dr Muir Faces Bullying and Harassment Allegations
On 17 July 2020, Mr Watt contacted HR about “potential bullying and harassment in the workplace”. As a result, HR manager Lesley Bright appointed Mark Barraclough as the investigating officer.
Three days later, on 20 July, Mr Barraclough updated Ms Bright about his findings. He outlined that those complaints had been made by Rachel Sullivan, Andrew Phillips and Amy Robertson, three of Dr Muir’s colleagues. Their complaints related to “poorly worded emails, raised voices and difficulties working together”.
Then, on 23 July, Mr Watt contacted Mr Barraclough, asking whether Dr Muir should be made aware of the allegations. The investigating officer responded, advising not to mention the complaints yet, with concerns about stressing Dr Muir unnecessarily. The tribunal highlighted that this showed the respondent’s awareness of Dr Muir’s mental health disability.
Despite employee concerns typically being dealt with through the ‘employee concerns policy’, the above complaints weren’t. This is significant, as the concerns policy focused on problem-solving rather than disciplinary action. Comparatively, Mr Barraclough opted for the ‘employee improvement policy’, which enabled disciplinary action up to dismissal for gross misconduct. Under the policy, such misconduct included “bullying and harassment”.
Mr Barraclough reasoned this policy was required due to the severe nature of the allegations. However, the tribunal learned the employees didn’t raise formal complaints, meaning they didn’t comply with company policy. Furthermore, they found Mr Barraclough had failed to consider if an informal approach could have resolved the matter.
Dr Muir’s Mental Health Disability Ignored During the Investigation
On 29 July, Mr Barraclough began interviewing witnesses, with Dr Muir only becoming aware of the investigation on 18 August. Following investigations, Mr Barraclough provided HR with a report on 2 October. He determined the matter should proceed to an ‘improvement hearing’, believing Dr Muir’s conduct amounted to bullying and harassment. Interestingly, several concerns were raised by Dr Muir, but no further action was taken.
Here, the tribunal acknowledged Mr Barraclough’s efforts regarding his detailed report. However, they believed “he displayed a lack of curiosity” concerning matters discussed during interviews. They reasoned, during a witness interview, that the AstraZeneca scientist was described as “a broken individual”. The tribunal explained how this was another reference to Dr Muir’s mental health disability without appropriate action being taken.
Dr Muir is Sacked for Gross Misconduct
After receiving the investigation report, HR appointed Ian Bromilow as the disciplinary hearing officer. Subsequently, Mr Bromilow invited Dr Muir to a formal hearing arranged for 16 October. However, following a delay, the hearing occurred on 22 October, with Dr Muir attending remotely with his union representative.
At the hearing’s conclusion, Mr Bromilow decided he needed to interview witnesses concerning matters raised by Dr Muir. Unfortunately, following deliberations, Mr Bromilow informed Dr Muir that his conduct amounted to bullying and harassment. As such, he was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct.
At this point, the tribunal outlined how Mr Bromilow discussed that Dr Muir’s conduct during the hearing supported his decision. This was because the AstraZeneca scientist appeared unable to remain calm. However, they also highlighted that Mr Bromilow didn’t consider Dr Muir’s mental health disability and how this could have affected his behaviour.
Following the hearing, a letter dated 18 December confirmed that Dr Muir’s final day of employment was 11 December. It also outlined his right to appeal, which he did on 8 January 2021 in a letter to Ms Bright.
An appeal hearing occurred on 25 January, but Dr Muir learned on 24 May that the original decision would stand. As such, he made an unfair dismissal claim to an employment tribunal following ACAS early conciliation.
Mental Health Disability – The Employment Tribunals Judgment’s Focus
The employment tribunal began by establishing that there was no dispute that Dr Muir had a mental health disability. They also acknowledged that during the incidents, he worked in an unengaged team with fast-approaching deadlines. Therefore, they understood how this increased his stress levels.
Moreover, the tribunal discussed how medical reports had shown that Dr Muir’s disability could affect his work. It highlighted how his disability could have a “detrimental impact on his interactions”, making him unaware of how he came across to colleagues.
Then, the tribunal considered if Dr Muir’s behaviour, impacted by his disability, was the reason for his dismissal. If this were the case, they would determine whether this was a proportionate measure. The tribunal held that Dr Muir’s behaviour was the reason for his dismissal but didn’t believe proportionate measures were taken.
They reasoned preventative steps could have been established earlier to minimise the impact of Dr Muir’s mental health disability on colleagues. Furthermore, since the respondents had known of his disability from at least January 2019, they should have acted accordingly and supported him. Because this wasn’t the case, they ruled Dr Muir had faced disability discrimination and had been unfairly dismissed.
Employers Need to Fully Understand Mental Health Disabilities
We ask Alex Hodson, senior associate and employment law specialist at Redmans Solicitors, how employers can support employees struggling with mental health disabilities. “It is important to be aware of their triggers, how their condition can impact them and the support that is needed to be put in place”, she says.
Alex further adds, “(in this case) whilst the Respondent initially attempted to dispute having knowledge of Dr Muir’s mental health condition, the Tribunal found that the Respondent would have reasonably known about his condition for almost two years prior to his dismissal. However, at no point during the disciplinary process did they investigate or consider that his actions were related to his condition.
This is why it is important for an employer to fully understand and learn the impact of a mental health disability on an employee and understand the support that may be needed when they are at their worst. The support (for mental health issues) could be as little as allowing for more time to complete work, reviewing workload, completing regular check-ins, and more.”
Upon asking how the employers should’ve handled the complaints against Dr Muir, she says, “If they had dealt with it as soon as they became aware of the complaint, by holding an informal meeting with him, they would have discovered that Dr Muir was struggling with his mental health.
Furthermore, support could have been put in place, and the disciplinary and employment tribunal proceedings could have been avoided altogether.”
If you want help making an unfair dismissal claim, contact Redmans Solicitors now. They are employment law specialists who could advise on your next possible steps. Also, to stay up-to-date in the employment law world, sign up for our newsletter today.