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White lies – a false reason for dismissal

Many of us have told a white lie or two at some stage – a fib designed to spare someone’s feelings. However, in the case of Rawlinson v Brightside Group Ltd the lie tied the employer in knots and eventually led to a successful constructive dismissal claim.

Mr Rawlinson was employed as Group Legal Counsel in an insurance broker business, Brightside. His employer decided to dismiss him because of concerns over poor performance, which it hadn’t raised with him. Brightside decided to tell a white lie over the reason for his dismissal. This was partly to soften the blow and partly to encourage Mr Rawlinson to work his notice period so it had time to recruit a replacement and do an orderly handover. Brightside told Mr Rawlinson that a decision had been made to review its approach to its legal service and that it would use external lawyers more in future instead. He was given notice of his dismissal.

Mr Rawlinson thought that if there was going to be an outsourcing of legal work there would be a TUPE transfer – meaning that his employment would transfer to the new law firm. He asked his employer for the name of the new firm. This left Brightside in a tricky position as there was no new firm! Mr Rawlinson resigned because of the failure to inform and consult, as he saw it as a breach of contract. He did not work his notice period.

The EAT held that he had been constructively dismissed. An employer is under a duty to act in good faith and not to mislead its employees. It didn’t matter that Mr Rawlinson had resigned in relation to something else. Brightside had wanted the relationship to continue during the notice period and so the intention behind the lie was not entirely selfless. While there was no obligation for Brightside to give the reason for dismissal, once it had chosen to do so, it needed to be truthful. The EAT did recognise that there might be less serious white lies which might not amount to a breach of trust and confidence, but this was not one of them. If you find yourself in a similar position, you may have to make a finely balanced judgment. If a handover is crucial then it could be tempting to tell a white lie. Ultimately the real reason for dismissal may come out in a future subject access request or tribunal proceedings anyway. But remember that the lie itself can have consequences that you didn’t mean or foresee and like, in this case, it can make things worse.