As you would expect, the Czech Labour Code permits an employer unilaterally to dismiss an employee who breaches his or her work duties. But when? The Czech Supreme Court has recently ruled that even a minor breach can suffice.
Under the Czech Labour Code there are three categories of breach of an employee’s work duties: gross, serious and less serious. An employer may, in exceptional cases, summarily dismiss an employee for a gross breach, otherwise he or she must be dismissed on notice. If a breach is classed as less serious it can serve as ground for termination only if, within a reasonable period, it has occurred at least three times and a warning notice has been given in the 6 months before notice is given. The notice period is 2 months or such longer period as the employer and employee may agree in writing.
Needless to say, an employer's opinion as to the severity of a breach (and whether dismissal, whether summary or on notice, is warranted) need not be shared by the courts. After considering the evidence in a particular case, the court may arrive at a completely different conclusion. These can sometimes be surprising. Who would expect, for instance, that a cook taking home waste food from a canteen or a chef objecting to a menu set by management would be firing offences? At the other end of the scale, one manager went AWOL for seven days but was not, in the relevant court’s opinion, guilty of a serious breach of his work duties.
This spring the Czech Supreme Court considered whether any, even the most trivial, breach of an employee’s work duties could result in dismissal, or whether, as prescribed by the Labour Code, the severity of the violation must at least reach the level of a “less serious” breach.
In the given case, an employee disputed the validity of a termination notice given for his repeated minor breaches. The individual in question was employed as a customer sales manager and was in the habit of providing monthly surveys and processing internal documents with a delay of a few hours or days, which he believed had no negative impact on the employer. Indeed, one of the delays was caused by a technical problem affecting the service vehicle used by him. Evidence was heard that the employee otherwise received positive reviews from the employer and, in the period under review, was even praised by management.
In its testimony the employer did not claim that the employee’s conduct caused it damage or other adverse consequences. The lower courts therefore reached the conclusion that the employee’s conduct could not even be regarded as a “less serious” breach of his duties. Accordingly, the employer had not been entitled to dismiss the employee on notice.
When the case came before the Supreme Court, the justices affirmed a 2001 ruling of the Supreme Court which held that only three categories of employee breach exist, as described above. As such, even the most trivial breach of an employee’s duties would fall into the “less serious” category and may therefore serve as a ground for dismissal.
The Supreme Court’s decision should be welcomed in terms of affirming its previous interpretation of the statutory text. However, case law may change again over time and the rule of thumb for employers must always be to exercise caution before dismissing an employee, not for a gross breach of his or her work duties, but for a repeated minor breach.
By Christian Blatchford, Partner, and Viktor Zelinka, Associate, Kocian Solc Balastik