A SHOP employee accused of stealing items has won her claim against unfair dismissal after a judge found an investigation into her conduct was ‘seriously flawed’.

Sally Coombs was dismissed from her role as a customer assistant at the Marks and Spencer store in Southend in May 2020 following an investigation into an alleged theft.

She was accused of putting items through a till, failing to pay for them, and then removing them from the shop.

Bosses believed she had them listed as layaways – a term used when items are removed from stock records on the basis they will be held aside for a customer who is unable to make an initial payment for them.

A tribunal heard Mrs Coombs admitted to leaving the tills with the items having not paid for them, but had always denied she had left the store with them.

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It found she had made an unsuccessful attempt to make a payment but was not challenged by a colleague serving her at the tills when she left with the items.

In a subsequent interview with store bosses, Mrs Coombs said she had left the items in question in a cold room/ fridge based within the shop.

The tribunal, which was held in October 2021, heard this claim was not challenged and the fridge had not been checked.

Judge Peter Wilkinson was scathing of the investigation into the alleged theft, and ruled in favour of Mrs Coombs claim of unfair dismissal.

He said shops bosses had given “no consideration” to the idea that Mrs Coombs’s failure to pay for the layaway items was inadvertent, rather than dishonest.

In his findings, he added: “Mrs Coombs’s admission that she had not completed the layaway and that this was wrong of her does not amount to an admission of theft.

“The misattribution to the claimant of an express admission that she left the store with goods for which she had not paid is illustrative of the lack of rigour in this investigation and the sloppy manner in which information was analysed and utilised.”

Mrs Coombs was also accused of failing to put items of clothing through a self-service checkout in another incident.

However, this allegation was dropped after an investigation found she had paid for all the items in question.

Electronic records showed all three items were put through the till and paid for - despite a store manager claiming CCTV showed they had not.

Judge Wilkinson said a one-day hearing would be held in the future to decide compensation for Mrs Coombs.

But he advised the two parties to “resolve or narrow their differences” to avoid further legal costs.

A spokesman for M&S said: “As a responsible business and employer, we are committed to following fair and robust processes. We are currently analysing this judgement and will act on any learnings to ensure we meet the high standards we set for ourselves.”