An IBM manager unfairly sacked a third-line IT support engineer despite having a pool of just two people to make redundancies from, a UK employment tribunal has ruled.
C Smith, who represented himself before Birmingham Employment Tribunal, successfully argued that manager Neil Bradbury, with whom he had a "history", had used unfair redundancy selection criteria to get rid of him in late 2018.
Smith was originally employed by network performance biz Micromuse until Big Blue bought the firm in 2005. He then worked for IBM as a third-line support engineer on the Netcool Omnibus network management product along with one other man, Jonathan Lawder.
Birmingham Employment Tribunal ruled, in a judgment published on Monday, that Smith was unfairly dismissed. Compensation for IBM's breach of employment law will be decided at a later hearing.
The tribunal heard that Bradbury thought Smith didn't have enough work to do and was looking for ways to make him work harder – including on weekend shifts, something Smith refused because it wasn't in his contract.
In March 2018, IBM was engaged in worldwide headcount reductions directed by its US head office. Down at the coalface in the UK, local managers were left to pick people out for "involuntary separation". Bradbury phoned and emailed Smith giving him three days' warning that he might be made redundant, before holding a meeting with managers.
Smith's managers held a scoring exercise in which the third-line engineer was rated at 22/50, with Lawder scoring 30/50. "Mr Bradbury was unable to provide any real clarity as to how he came to the particular score for each category," noted Employment Judge Miller. Nonetheless, Bradbury decided that Smith's role involved coming up with "wide solutions to common problems", something the software engineer said wasn't part of his third-line support role because that was the job of the product development team.
Part of the reason for Smith's low scores was that his CheckPoint internal appraisals within IBM were not great. He told the tribunal that he understood they were used for calculating bonuses and pay rises – "neither of which... were generous". Critically, he wasn't told that they would be used in redundancy scoring exercises, even after the process began.
Bradbury compounded this blunder by telling Smith of his redundancy by reading from a script prepared for him by IBM HR worker Abigail Baker. Despite Smith asking questions during that meeting, Bradbury refused to deviate from the script in any way at all – leading the judge to conclude: "I find that the claimant was not informed at this stage that he had the right or ability to challenge the scores or the decision to select him for redundancy."
Smith did not appeal against redundancy, believing it would be pointless, but tried submitting a formal grievance about it in July 2018. Judge Miller found: "The outcome was no more than a recitation of what had happened and a decision that the redundancy process was dealt with appropriately."
The judge found that Bradbury's decision to make Smith redundant was not one that an employer could have reasonably adopted, ruling:
The absence of any consultation or discussion with the claimant about the proposal to rely on the previous CheckPoint scores introduced into the scheme an element of unreasonableness in these particular circumstances. The claimant said, and I accept, that while he did not agree with the CheckPoint outcomes, he did not see any point in challenging them at the time and he was unaware that they might be used in a redundancy selection exercise at some point in the future.
"The CheckPoint assessments were not agreed by the employees at the time and they could only be challenged on appeal," ruled the judge. "If they were likely to have wider implications for employees' continuing employment in a future redundancy situation this ought to have been made clear at the time."
Compensation for Smith will be set at a future hearing in the case.
IBM's employment practices have seen it run foul of UK employment law multiple times over the past few years, including a recent case in which an employment judge told the American company to teach its managers the meaning of "discrimination".
Across the Pond, the firm has also been in hot water for trying to sack expensive older staff in favour of cheap young employees – a policy that may have contributed to its problems entering the UK insurance software market. ®