With less than a month to go before the start of the new football season, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has kicked us off with a recent case of a football manager who decided he had been red-carded by his employer. James McBride was employed by Falkirk Football & Athletic Club as the manager/head coach of the under 19s team. Mr McBride was responsible for team selection and associated duties, such as giving team talks and deciding on set pieces (for those of you who reach for the remote at the first sight of Gary Lineker, set pieces mean aspects of play that can be rehearsed beforehand, like corners and free-kicks). Mr McBride did well in his role and his team were at the top of their league.
Falkirk then appointed a Director of the Youth Academy and, after an incident involving the team not clearing up after themselves, the overall manager of Falkirk decided that he wanted the Youth Academy Director to take over responsibility for picking the under 19 team. Mr McBride was informed of this and, after an attempt to change the manager’s mind, tendered his resignation that same day and claimed constructive dismissal.
The Tribunal, at first instance, decided that Mr McBride had not been constructively dismissed on the basis that, firstly, as an experienced football manager, Mr McBride would have known that Academy Directors effectively trump Head Coaches and therefore he should not have assumed he would retain responsibility for team selection. The Tribunal also found that the lack of consultation over the change did not amount to a breach because in football “an autocratic style of management” is the norm.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal had no hesitation in overturning the Tribunal’s decision and substituting it with a finding that Mr McBride had been constructively dismissed.
The EAT, quite rightly, focused on the terms of Mr McBride’s contract and whether these had been breached by the Football Club. It concluded that there was no evidence to support the Tribunal’s conclusion that Mr McBride’s knowledge of other Football Academies was sufficient to imply a term in his contract that his responsibilities would be removed when an Academy Director was appointed.
The EAT also rejected the argument that autocratic management is the norm in football. It said that an employer cannot argue that “he and others in his industry treat all employees badly and therefore treating an employee badly cannot amount to a breach of the duty to maintain trust and confidence”.
As a result, the unilateral removal of Mr McBride’s duties, without consultation, did amount to a breach of contract.
Although this case has interesting implications for football coaches whose managers or owners buy and sell players without their consent, it is a timely reminder for all employers of the importance of ensuring that your contracts set out exactly what you intend. If an employee’s job is likely to change in the future, it is imperative that it is made clear in advance that it will happen.
As an aside, the more unscrupulous employers out there may be concerned by the EAT so roundly disapproving of the “we treat everyone badly” defence!