Full-time student who wanted full-time employment claims discrimination

Case manager says employer didn't support full-time study alongside work

Full-time student who wanted full-time employment claims discrimination

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) recently dealt with a case involving a worker who resigned from her position as a case manager at a company due to a dispute over her full-time study commitments.

The worker claimed that she suffered an unjustified disadvantage, was constructively dismissed, and faced discrimination from her employer.

In this case, the ERA discussed the complexities of balancing work and study commitments, exploring the boundaries of an employer's obligations and the consequences of miscommunication between parties.

Background of the case

The worker, who had been pursuing a bachelor's degree on a full-time basis, applied for a role as a case manager at the company in August 2022.

During the interview process, she disclosed her study commitments, and upon commencing employment on 17 October 2022, she took short periods of leave to attend exams, which were approved by her manager without any concerns being raised.

The worker's employment and training progressed well, and she was successful in obtaining entry into a competitive master's programme. As the programme was fully remote, the worker expected that she would only need to take leave for scheduled exams, which usually occurred during work hours.

Given that her employer had not raised any concerns about her study commitments when she was hired and at the beginning of her employment, the worker believed that she would be able to manage her studies alongside her work responsibilities.

Misunderstandings and employer’s assumptions

According to records, problems began to surface in January 2023 when the worker's manager took scheduled leave, and a colleague temporarily acted as the team manager.

The colleague became aware of the worker's acceptance into the master's programme and her intention to continue studying full-time, and informed the manager of this development.

The manager, who worked from home at least three days per week and did not engage in casual office conversations, had assumed that the worker's studies would end at the conclusion of her bachelor's degree and had not realised that she planned to study full-time while working.

The manager also formed the opinion that the worker wanted to work from home on a full-time basis to accommodate her studies, although there was confusion about the source of this information.

Concerns raised by the employer

The worker's manager became concerned about the combination of full-time work and full-time study, believing that it would be challenging for the worker to manage both successfully.

The manager discussed these concerns with her own manager, who concluded that the situation posed "a real risk situation for [the employer]."

On 1 February 2023, the worker's manager sent her a letter outlining the employer's understanding of her intentions and the reasons why they could not approve the arrangement.

The letter stated, "I cannot approve of this work arrangement," citing reasons such as the potential breach of the good faith relationship, the arrangement being outside the parameters of what the employer could support, and the employer's policy discouraging new staff from working from home.

The worker's response and resignation

The worker promptly responded to the letter, clarifying that she had not requested to work from home for the duration of her study. However, just 27 minutes after receiving the letter, she tendered her resignation, stating, "I understand my decision to study full-time does not align with [the employer's] policy."

The worker believed that she was left with no choice but to resign, as she interpreted the letter and a prior conversation with her manager as an indication that the employer would not support her full-time study alongside full-time work.

She had considered the suggestion in the letter to study part-time but did not want to pursue that option.

Exploring study and work options

The employer argued that the worker had resigned without exploring all available options and that the 1 February 2023 letter had invited her to propose alternative arrangements, which she did not do.

The employer maintained that the worker's resignation was not their fault and did not constitute a dismissal.

The employer's representative explained that they had only suggested part-time study and full-time work in the letter because it was their preferred option, and they did not want to propose part-time work as it was not something the employer wanted to offer.

This stance was supported by evidence from a member of the employer's employment relations team, who had liaised with the worker after her resignation and had been instructed that the employer was not willing to offer part-time work as a solution.

The ERA’s decision

The ERA examined the worker's claims of constructive dismissal, unjustified disadvantage, and discrimination. In assessing the constructive dismissal claim, the Authority considered whether there had been a breach of duty by the employer that was serious enough to indicate that they no longer intended to be bound by the employment contract.

The Authority found that while the employer's letter was strongly worded, it did not amount to a breach of duty. The letter sought the worker's response and clarification, stating that her input "may further influence [their] approach."

The Authority noted that the employer's concerns were multifaceted, based on a combination of factors, including potential breaches of remote working policies, rather than solely focusing on the worker's full-time study.

Regarding the worker's motivation for resigning, the Authority highlighted her unwillingness to compromise on her full-time study commitments. The ERA stated, "Setting aside the issues around [the employer's] mistaken assumptions about [the worker's] plans, there is no breach of obligation by [the employer] in expecting [the worker] to continue to prioritise her prior contractual commitment to it as a full-time employee."

Ultimately, the ERA determined that the worker's claims of constructive dismissal, unjustified disadvantage, and discrimination were not substantiated.

The Authority found that the employer's actions did not amount to a breach of duty serious enough to warrant a constructive dismissal claim: "Overall, I find that [the worker's] claim of constructive dismissal is not made out. No orders are made."

The ERA also concluded that the worker had not suffered an unjustified disadvantage, as the employer's concerns and the 1 February letter did not alter any condition of her employment.

"Even if [the worker] is correct in that the comment to her on the phone to the effect that [the employer] 'would not support' [the worker] in full-time study was [the employer's] firm and final decision on the matter (which is not borne out by the text of the letter and emails that followed), no unjustified disadvantage can be made out, because the ability to study full-time was not a condition of [the worker's] employment."

Finally, the Authority dismissed the worker's discrimination claim, finding that she had not been treated differently compared to other employees in the same circumstances and that the employer's actions were not motivated by any prohibited grounds of discrimination.

"The circumstances do not meet the tests for discrimination set out in the Act. No claim is made out and no orders are made," the decision said.

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