Should mental health challenges mitigate misconduct sanctions?

Having been dismissed due to allegations of ‘repeated inappropriate conduct’, a scientist at AstraZeneca, Dr James Muir, has been found by the Employment Tribunal to have been unfairly and wrongly dismissed and to have suffered disability discrimination. Dr Muir argued that his ‘intimidating’ behaviour was due to his disability; this being his mental health issues. This has highlighted the importance of following an appropriate investigation and disciplinary procedure and considering, if applicable, an employee’s protected characteristics in the process.


Dr Muir commenced his employment with AstraZeneca (the Company) on 5 January 1998 and was dismissed on 11 December 2020. Dr Muir had a history of mental health issues including depressive illness and generalised anxiety disorder. The Tribunal observed records dating back to 2014 which included attendances at psychiatry and mental health clinics. It was admitted by the Company and medical professionals that Dr Muir was disabled. This was found to be a long-term condition which could reemerge when being placed under significant stress; including during the project that Dr Muir’s behaviour in question occurred.

Evidence was uncovered that the Company were notified of Dr Muir’s mental state in 2018 and subsequently his direct line of management was changed. It was expressed by his new manager that ‘he was a broken man when he joined my team’. In support of this, during Dr Muir’s employment, the Company were provided with various absence notifications, related fit notes and in an end of year review, it was discussed how his behaviour was in connection to his mental health. Additionally, the Tribunal considered correspondence between management relating to Dr Muir stating, ‘He’s been “good” overall this past 18 months, he’s shown flashes of alternating into “Mr Hyde” mode now and again but recently he’s been mainly in Hyde mode.’ It was found this demonstrated an understanding by the Company that his persona could shift towards something more unsettling than his customary demeanour. The Tribunal accepted that it was likely that this pattern continued throughout the relevant period in this case.

On 17 July 2020, a ‘ticket’ was raised with HR, against Dr Muir, entitled ‘Potential Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace’. Three informal complaints were made by colleagues relating to poorly worded emails, raised voices and difficulties working together. However, it was decided a formal disciplinary process was to be carried out and an investigator was appointed to examine these allegations. The process began without the aid of any official complaint documents but instead with the use of ‘vague’ management instruction emails. The Tribunal heard how there was no consideration given to how Dr Muir should be managed while the investigation progressed, this included Dr Muir not being informed that an internal investigation was being held. The Tribunal heard these amongst other questionable processes that were carried out.

As part of the disciplinary hearing outcome, evidence was given that Dr Muir ‘…displayed behaviours’ during this final hearing ‘…supporting the findings and outcome being delivered’. Accordingly, the Tribunal accepted that this was a material factor in reaching the decision to dismiss him. It was found that there was no evidence that Dr Muir’s mental health was considered, of which they should have been aware, and whether this was a factor in how he behaved when under stress, such as would be the case at a disciplinary hearing. Dr Muir’s union representative was concerned that the matter had progressed straight to dismissal, without prior issues or warning.

Dr Muir went onto appeal the outcome of the disciplinary hearing. The newly appointed and impartial investigator contacted the prior investigator for details on the matter. It was acknowledged that this fell outside of normal company practice. The Tribunal were surprised by these actions and the lack of awareness that such meetings would alter the apparent fairness of the process. The appeal investigation also included a colleague stating they did not know of Dr Muir’s mental health which differed from their statement in the initial investigation. The Tribunal found on reviewing correspondence that it was included ‘…can we stand the red face test?’. The Tribunal understood that this was an expression concerning the risk of embarrassment to the Company arising from Dr Muir’s disciplinary process.


The Tribunal concluded that Dr Muir’s conduct, witnessed by colleagues, was deemed ‘unacceptable and intimidating’. However, there was a notable lack of mindfulness regarding the impact of Dr Muir’s mental health issues on his behaviour and his responses on this project.

The Tribunal stated that his disability was something which played a significant role in how he related with his colleagues while working on this project. It was found that the Company dismissed Dr Muir because of this behaviour, and this was a legitimate aim. However, they failed to apply it in a proportionate way when deciding to take formal disciplinary action against Dr Muir. On reviewing the evidence, the Tribunal accepted that the Company knew or could have been expected to reasonably know that Dr Muir had a disability during the relevant period. For these reasons, the Tribunal did not accept that the decision to dismiss Dr Muir was a reasonable response out of the sanctions available to a disciplinary hearing manager. The process could have been carried out in a ‘more measured and thoughtful way’.

Learning points

The Tribunal has set a clear message in relation to what could be relevant considerations when carrying out a disciplinary investigation and hearing. Whilst it is right that individuals should be held accountable for their proven inappropriate conduct in the workplace, a balance must be found between procedure and a protected characteristic.

This case serves as a powerful reminder to all employers on the risks associated with not considering the very particular circumstances of a matter. Additionally, the need to evaluate disciplinary outcomes and investigatory evidence fully prior to implementing a sanction.

How we can help

With so many factors to consider, understanding how to respond appropriately in matters of potential disability discrimination and how to carry out further investigation properly and support employees appropriately, could avoid a lengthy and costly Employment Tribunal process.

For further information, or to discuss the issues raised within this case, please contact us to speak to a member of our Employment Team.

Darren Smith
Partner, Employment
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This reflects the law and market position at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought in relation to a specific matter.

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