A fair dismissal must be preceded by a reasonable investigation, to establish the facts of the case.
The ACAS code says that the investigation might involve an investigation meeting but will sometimes involve the collection of evidence for use at the disciplinary hearing instead. The Employment Appeal Tribunal in Sunshine Hotels v Goddard has analysed what a reasonable investigation looks like.
The employee was accused of sleeping whilst on duty at the hotel. He was suspended pending an investigation. The investigation involved the manager watching CCTV footage of the hotel. The employee was sent a letter inviting him to an investigation meeting on 16 April, saying there would be a disciplinary hearing if there was any substance to the allegations. The 16 April meeting turned out to be a disciplinary hearing at which the employee was dismissed. The employment tribunal said the dismissal was unfair because there had not been a proper investigation. The employer appealed because the employment tribunal appeared to suggest that a separate investigation hearing was required in every case for a dismissal to be fair.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed the appeal. The tribunal's decision was based on the lack of a proper investigation overall, rather than the lack of an investigation meeting. Looking at the CCTV wasn’t enough investigation. The employer could have walked the usual patrol route with the employee to see whether it naturally bypassed CCTV as the employee alleged. Whether that investigation took place by way of a meeting or another method was irrelevant, but neither were done in this case. The employee didn't know enough about the allegations at the outset of the disciplinary hearing to defend himself properly, not least because he thought he was attending was an investigation rather than a disciplinary hearing.
This case confirms that an investigation meeting is not always required, but an adequate investigation is. Employers must ensure that they gather all the relevant facts before any disciplinary hearing. In cases such as this, where someone is accused of misconduct and offers an explanation, those explanations should be investigated before any disciplinary hearing takes place.