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Context: In employment for a small London based software engineering company (3 employees including me) for 18 months now. No previous warnings or grievances or disciplinary procedures.

I was due into work last Friday after my Christmas break but was told not to come in until today as they wanted to keep the office closed (I was given a "mandatory" holiday). I was asked to review my employment contract and the employee handbook (both of which I never seen or signed before this point in time) on said "mandatory holiday" via email. This should have sent alarm bells ringing but it didn't.

Fast forward to today, in the office at 9am and was called into a meeting telling me they are investigating me for gross misconduct and that I'm suspended effective immediately. A final review will be held next Monday and that I'm entitled to have some present (I have no coworkers to bring with me).

The gross misconduct has stemmed from a piece of software I was asked to rewrite (open source with a restricted licence) to ensure there were no licencing issues. I committed this work believing it to resolve the issue, asked for a review to confirm but was instructed by my manager to release it. Today (approximately 4 weeks since the software was released) is the first piece of feedback I was given on that work and it as to tell me I am being investigated for gross misconduct since they "they reviewed it over Christmas and it looks very similar" and it means "potential legal issues for the company". I was told the outcome would either be dismissal or a demotion with an appropriate pay cut.

They have removed access to my emails (I can no longer access my employment contract or the employee handbook that I was only given last week) and removed access to the code that they have an issue with (I can no longer review it or get someone else to review it to see if there is, in fact, an issue). I have send an email formally requesting access to both of these things.

I really shocked at what has happened and I am still gathering my thoughts but I have a few questions:

  1. Keeping in mind I asked for a review of my work to check if it met the criteria of what was asked of me to do (which I wasn't given) and then ordered to release the code, am I being made a scapegoat for any potential legal action?
  2. I was only given a copy of my contract last week with the handbook. Is it acceptable to hand me this and then retrospectively accuse me of violating it?
  3. Who do I bring to the review next week?
  4. Should I immediately start applying for a new job?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Updates:

Neither my request for a review, my being asked to release the code or me being tasked with removing/rewriting the licensed code is in writing. It's a small company and we usually just discussed things rather than writing them down.

The lack of not having signed a contract or haven been given an employee handbook is likely incompetence but I wasn't aware of any procedure around this or that I could have even been in violation of any of the company rules.

To my knowledge they are not facing any legal action. The release was private and only given to one customer who has yet to download it. As of this moment in time they have not removed it from their releases website.

Literally the only information I have been provided on this is them saying "it looks very similar". This was communicated verbally and nothing has been given to me in writing. This was communicated before I was told I was suspended and told to leave the office.

closed as off-topic by Dukeling, paparazzo, DarkCygnus, gnat, Mister Positive Jan 8 '18 at 21:21

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    Whatever the result, start exercising option 4) Look for a new job. Seems pretty clear that these guys want you to quit. – Snow Jan 8 '18 at 14:51
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    This level of bureaucracy and formality is surprising fro such a small shop, maybe they are being sued ? – Morons Jan 8 '18 at 15:01
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    Not clear what the rewrite entailed. Looks very similar is not clear. VTC – paparazzo Jan 8 '18 at 15:21
  • Regarding the not being written, they fouled that ball when they revoked access to your email. It would be incredibly easy for your lawyer to invoke doubt about the lack of such written communication - since the email account has been withheld from you (so you can't provide evidence to the contrary) or tampering with the account. – Stian Yttervik Jan 8 '18 at 15:33
  • And also, if you haven't signed a contract then what are you in breach of, exactly? If you haven't (in advance of the event in question) seen or checked out on the company policies, what are you in breach of? Even if you had conducted gross misconduct, they have no case. – Stian Yttervik Jan 8 '18 at 15:35
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1) Is it in writing? If so, and they've barred access to your email, see a solicitor as they may come at you for costs.

Not in writing, you're going to get the blame for this. Time to have an initial consult with a solicitor

2) This is dodgy, but more likely incompetence and the boss realising they can't complete their shady dismissal without a contract in your hands. See a solicitor.

3) Not a colleague. They will be in cover their arse mode. See a solicitor, bring them.

4) Yes, while starting the groundwork for either an unfair or constructive dismissla claim through a solicitor.

As @Morons says, this looks like they are in defense mode. If this is the case, the damage to your career would be fairly substantial. Although in most instances taking legal action against your employer results in a tougher job search, you might need this in case they come at you financially.

  • 1) Neither my request for a review, my being asked to release the code or me being tasked with removing/rewriting the licensed code is in writing. It's a small company and we usually just discussed things rather than writing them down. 2) Most likely incompatence but I wasn't aware of any procedure around this or that I could have even been in viloation of any of the company rules. 3) Looking into this now. I think it would be a mistake to go alone. 4) Agreed. To be honest I just want to find a new job and move on. – Bill Sanchez Jan 8 '18 at 15:05
  • It sounds as though something's gone bad with the release and the company is now faced with legal proceedings. They're throwing you overboard in an attempt to mitigate the entire ship sinking. The ship may still sink, with or without you aboard. – Snow Jan 8 '18 at 15:09
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    To summarize John's answer .. Lawyer up. It looks like the only reasonable approach you can take to ensure that you are protected. – Peter M Jan 8 '18 at 15:13
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    Regarding item 3: OP should bring at least bring a tape recorder to the next meeting, preferrably also a lawyer.The summary provided by OP is telling that they are not exactly following standard protocol so I'd say he has a fair chance of getting out without any major scrapes. But bring a recorder, let them know it will be on, and then record the proceedings. This is kinda confrontational, but aggressive posturing can lead to better results when they try to make the standard as they go. – Stian Yttervik Jan 8 '18 at 15:20
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    @BillSanchez At this point I'd say that the job is already long gone – Peter M Jan 8 '18 at 15:29
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You are, as we Yanks say, being thrown under the bus. Whatever you do, do NOT go into that meeting and admit that you actually wrote and submitted that code.

Yes, I know that you did so write and did so submit; everyone familiar with the facts knows that. But if the company are going to take any civil (equity) action against you they will have to start by stating and proving all that to authorities who are not familiar with the facts. Don't contribute to this effort.

If your company says you are not allowed to bring legal representation to the meeting next Monday, or if you cannot engage a solicitor by that time, do not attend the meeting. You can be sure that they will have some kind of lawyer present to represent their interests.

In fact you really should not communicate further with your company at all without legal counsel.

It is obvious that the copyright holder of the open source code has lodged some sort of complaint against your company, and the manager who told you to release your code without a review has made a big mistake, and the company have decided that its best course is to make you fully responsible for it.

Your solicitor will explain why they need to do this (It's not because they hate you, it has to do with personal failure vs. institutional failure.)

Your solicitor will also be alert to other traps for the unwary layman.

For example, depending on just what was written down and what was only verbal, it may be impossible for the company to aver that you wrote and submitted the code, without also admitting that they instructed you to rewrite licensed code and asked you to release it without your requested review.

Or, the company may tell you that it is not legal for you to communicate with the copyright holder or with the customer who has been promised the software. This is probably arrant nonsense but you need proper advice from your own advocate.

Also you note that as of this moment in time the company have not removed the software from their releases website. A solicitor will know whether this in itself is useful evidence.

Now, at the end of the day you may not have used a lawyer at all and if you have one in excess of requirements, you will be out some fees. But the lack of a lawyer when in need of one can be much more expensive than that.

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    Not attending the meeting might breach work law in some countries. He may be able to ask for more time to find a union's representative. Consult a lawyer most definitely because they sure have done that. – Adam Smith Jan 9 '18 at 1:18
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  1. Keeping in mind I asked for a review of my work to check if it met the criteria of what was asked of me to do (which I wasn't given) and then ordered to release the code, am I being made a scapegoat for any potential legal action?

Do you keep any backup of your emails? Especially ones where you completed your work, or asked for a review which they did not? You said your email account is locked now so it's acceptable at this point you probably won't get to review that unless you have a backup somewhere.

  1. I was only given a copy of my contract last week with the handbook. Is it acceptable to hand me this and then retrospectively accuse me of violating it?

In most situations I've seen with the on boarding process, the company would have you sign off that you received the proper employee training and rules of conduct. Did you sign such a thing in your first few days at the company? If not, I would not sign anything now that implies you did receive such a training.

  1. Who do I bring to the review next week?

Just yourself. At this point a lawyer can't do anything other than advise you of what to say or do. Since your company didn't do anything yet there's nothing a lawyer can do. If you have any emails, or documents that implies you asked for a product review and/or asked them to review the code, that would be helpful. Make sure you only give copies, and not originals.

  1. Should I immediately start applying for a new job?

YES This is the wise course of action right now. Regardless of the outcome, I would not want to work at such a company. My best advice right now is to simply spend the time you have to find a new job and hope for the best.

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