Refusal to Work in the Face of a Grievance

Can employees legally refuse to work purely in response to a dispute or grievance at work? No, says the Court of Appeal. We look at the ruling, and what it means for businesses and employees.

The employee in this case[1] held a major sales position with a global supplier of business process management services, earning £90,000 plus a large bonus and company car. He had been off work for nearly a year with acute back problems and had undergone surgery. He was, for the purposes of equality law, suffering from a disability.

On his return, he was put on lighter duties on the same pay, and he did not know when his full duties would resume. The company was resistant to his return to normal duties partly (or even mainly) because it believed he needed to get back up to speed and prove himself after such a long absence.

The employee brought a claim for disability discrimination - and refused to do any further work. The company dismissed him for misconduct.

What did the Court of Appeal decide?
The employee’s refusal to work was a breach of his employment contract and amounted to misconduct. This was the case even though it was the employer’s actions that stopped him returning to his full role.

The Court made clear that “it is not the law that an employee who is the victim of a wrong can in all circumstances simply refuse to do any further work unless and until that wrong is remedied”. The remedy may have to be sought in the courts. The employee should have resigned or carried on working under protest - and made a claim to the Employment Tribunal. Notably, the court indicated that the employee’s rights in making a substantive claim to the Tribunal would not have been prejudiced had he continued to work.

The ruling is clear that an employee who refuses to work, in breach of their employment contract, risks disciplinary action for misconduct, and faces summary dismissal.

[1] Rochford v WNS Global Services (UK) Ltd & Ors [2017] EWCA Civ 2205



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