French employment courts generally subject alleged reasons for employee dismissal to close scrutiny, particularly where dismissals are based on a breach of the duty of loyalty or of probity. Such breaches only constitute valid grounds for dismissal if they are genuine and rely on objective facts and behaviour which are attributable to the employee concerned.
From time to time, the French Supreme Court renders decisions recalling this principle. And here is a perfect example.
In the case in question, a bank client relationship manager was dismissed under the following circumstances:
The bank in which he was employed organized a client event and prepared envelopes containing gift vouchers for the invitees. Each of the invitees received an envelope, but as a surplus number of envelopes had been prepared, some of them were not distributed. At the end of the event, those envelopes could not be found.
An internal investigation was launched quickly, including an internal meeting with the employees who had attended the client event. A few weeks later, the employee admitted that he had taken the missing envelopes. He had not returned them immediately and had to be reminded by his employer to do so.
In this context and despite his previously unblemished record, the employee was dismissed by the bank on the grounds of serious misconduct, considering that his actions rendered his continuing presence in the company impossible. The employee therefore did not receive any severance payment or indemnity in lieu of notice period.
In the dismissal letter, the bank stated that “By your actions and behaviour you have broken the trust that contractually binds the Company to an employee. For such purposes, we refer you to the Bank Code of Ethics which, in its general principles, provides that “behaviour which is manifestly contrary to the values of service and honesty recognized by the group should not be allowed to continue”.
The employee challenged his dismissal before the French employment tribunals. The court of appeals ruled that the dismissal for serious misconduct was well founded.
The French Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals, holding that the bank legitimately expected exemplary probity on the part of its client relationship managers, whose duties included the handling of funds
In the present case, the level of the disciplinary sanction was justified not only by the employee’s breach (considering the nature of his duties), but also by the concealment of such breach. It might be that the judges would have been more lenient if the employee had confessed his fault at the time the management questioned the staff about the disappearance of the gift vouchers.