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What is ‘off the record’?

Off the record conversations can play a vital role in resolving workplace disputes. Section 111A of the Employment Rights Act 1996 says that confidential discussions about ending an employee’s employment can be ‘off the record’ in certain circumstances. These are known as ‘protected conversations’. If s111A applies, termination discussions cannot be used as evidence in an unfair dismissal claim unless there has been ‘improper behaviour’ by the employer.  Section 111A only applies to ordinary unfair dismissal claims. Consequently, the content of termination discussions can be used as evidence in other claims, such as automatic unfair dismissal (for example a pregnancy related dismissal) and discrimination claims.

In Harrison v Aryman, an employee resigned and claimed constructive dismissal after a series of discriminatory acts relating to pregnancy and sex. She said the last straw was a ‘confidential settlement proposal’ she received from her employer shortly after she announced her pregnancy. The employer said the letter was off the record due to s111A. The employee said the letter was part of the employer’s improper discriminatory behaviour and she should be allowed to use it in evidence.

The employment tribunal found that s111A applied, meaning the employee could not refer to the letter in her unfair dismissal claim. The employee appealed. The Employment Appeal Tribunal said the tribunal had got it wrong. When an employee’s claim is for automatic unfair dismissal, such as a pregnancy related dismissal, s111A does not apply and the content of a protected conversation can be used in evidence. This is different from the situation in a normal unfair dismissal claim where an employee wants to refer to a protected conversation because they allege improper conduct. In that case the tribunal will need to hear evidence about the improper conduct before deciding whether the evidence can be used.

This case is a reminder to employers that ‘off the record’ conversations can come back to haunt you.  If there is any risk of discrimination or an automatic unfair dismissal claim, take advice before starting any kind of dialogue about termination.

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