Falsifying documents in the workplace is a serious matter, and would generally constitute misconduct and result in disciplinary action. It may also raise issues of dishonesty and breach of trust in the employment relationship, and depending on the facts, may raise potential regulatory and criminal breaches.
The following guide for managers and HR looks at what disciplinary and other action can be taken against employees alleged to have falsified information, from forging personal documents to fraudulently amending workplace records.
What counts as falsifying documents in the workplace?
Falsification of documents is the act of changing the information on a document deliberately intending to mislead a person or company.
In the context of the workplace, this could be in circumstances where an employee has forged their own personal documents to gain or retain employment, or where an employee fraudulently alters or amends workplace records, such as for economic gain or other form of advantage.
Examples of falsifying personal documents
The falsification of personal documents including, for example, qualifications, accreditations, certifications or references, essentially refers to where an individual provides their employer with fake documents pertinent to their initial job application or pre-employment screening, or ongoing suitability for a role. Another example could be providing falsified proof of eligibility to work documentation or a fake sick note.
Depending on the nature of the business or documents in question, employing an individual who has lied or misled their employer about the nature and extent of their education, skills or experience can have significant consequences for an organisation. This can lead to issues around professional liability and reputational damage, since the burden rests with the employer to ensure that an employee is fit for the job they’ve been hired to do.
In a health and safety context, where an employee has falsified personal records and, in so doing, has misrepresented their ability to safely undertake their role, the employer could even be found to be vicariously liable for any injury or death caused because of this. Here, the potentially serious consequences of forgery and falsification are clear — putting lives at risk, giving the misleading impression that an employee is capable when they’re not.
Examples of falsifying workplace records
The falsification of workplace records refers to any documents or data referable to either the employee’s job role, and information around this, or the business as a whole.
Falsifying workplace records could include where an employee has manipulated information around work undertaken by them, perhaps to provide a more positive picture of their performance or hours, or to cover up an error or omission. At board level, this can include attempts to mislead shareholders, by falsifying financial documents to inflate the performance of the company, or even attempts to conceal serious breaches of legislation, especially around health and safety.
Again, depending on the nature of the business or documents in question, falsification of workplace records can have significant consequences for the employer, the organisation, and even other employees or members of the public — giving the misleading impression that things are safe, or financially promising, when they may be the opposite.
What does the law say about falsifying documents at work?
Regardless of the extent of any damage caused by the employee’s dishonesty or the potential risk of damage, falsifying documents in the workplace in most cases would be a conduct issue, for which an employee may, depending on the facts, be lawfully dismissed for gross misconduct.
What constitutes gross misconduct can depend upon the context in which the conduct takes place and any repercussions arising from this. However, even if a very junior member of staff has falsified a reference or filled in gaps in their CV, where this hasn’t negatively reflected on the business or their standard of work, this is still arguably a serious breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence between the parties. This is because any level of dishonesty serves to undermine the entire employment relationship.
In more serious cases, where the employee’s dishonesty wholly undermines their ability or suitability for continued employment with the employer, in addition to the likelihood of dismissal, the employee could also face professional misconduct charges or even criminal prosecution. This is because falsification of documents in the workplace, whether by changing or concealing information, is not only unethical but sometimes illegal.
Organisations should ensure their conduct and disciplinary policy provides clarity on these types of issues, including what would constitute misconduct and the potential penalties. The employer must also ensure they follow a fair and lawful disciplinary procedure, which should usually include an investigation into the allegations before disciplinary action is taken.
The employer should also consider if any regulatory or criminal offences may apply, including offences under the Fraud Act 2006. Under the 2006 Act, a person will be guilty of ‘fraud by false representation’ if they dishonestly make a false representation and, by making the representation, intend to make a gain for either themselves or another, or to cause loss to another or expose someone else to a risk of loss. A person will be guilty of ‘fraud by failing to disclose information’ if they dishonestly fail to disclose to another person information which they’re under a legal duty to disclose and, by this failure, intend to make a gain for either themselves or another, or to cause loss to another or expose someone else to a risk of loss.
A number of different offences can also arise where falsification of health and safety documentation has put others at risk of injury or death. For example, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA) requires both employers and employees to take care of themselves and others who might be affected by their acts or omissions at work, where it’s an offence for a person to fail to discharge this duty. In this context, falsifying qualifications required to do a certain role, or workplace records where this gives rise to a risk to health and safety, such as safety inspection records, could easily constitute a criminal offence.
Additionally, any alteration of workplace records can amount to one of the specific dishonesty offences under the HSWA. For example, it’s an offence to intentionally make a false entry in a register, book, notice or other document required by law to be kept, served or given, with intent to deceive. Equally, it’s an offence to forge or use a document issued or authorised to be issued by law with intent to deceive, or to make or have in their possession a document so closely resembling any such document as to be calculated to deceive.
Penalties for falsifying documents at work
If an individual is found to have falsified documents in the workplace following a fair and lawful disciplinary procedure, the employer may be able to dismiss them. This is because fraudulent behaviour, provided this is proven, is a matter of gross misconduct for which an employee can be summarily dismissed, without notice or pay in lieu of notice.
However, the consequences of falsifying documents can be even greater than this. In some job roles, this level of dishonesty can result in an individual being struck off, for example, in the financial sector or from acting as a company director. Where an individual is criminally prosecuted, they may also be liable on conviction to a custodial sentence, a fine, or both.
In some industry sectors, depending on the nature of the deception involved and the impact of this on others, especially where perpetrated by a senior member of staff, such as a company director, this can even result in corporate liability and fines from regulatory bodies.
Guidance for employers
Falsifying documents in the workplace is typically something so serious that it will make it impossible for the working relationship to continue, justifying dismissal for a first offence. However, every dismissal must be approached on a case-by-case basis taking into account all the circumstances involved. Employees must also be given the opportunity to defend any allegations made against them. This means that they cannot simply be sacked on the spot, but rather a full investigation must first be undertaken before making any decision to dismiss in accordance with the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.
In circumstance where any allegations of dishonesty are especially serious, for example, where there’s a significant reputational risk or a risk to the health and safety of others, the employee will usually need to be suspended pending an investigation. However, unless the contract provides otherwise, any suspension should be on full pay.
Either way, the employer should:
- Investigate the matter without unreasonable delay: this could involve interviewing the employee and other members of staff about the allegations involved, and reviewing the alleged falsified documentation at the subject of the investigation;
- Make a decision as to whether or not there’s a case to answer: at the conclusion of the investigation, the allegations against the employee should either be dropped based on the available evidence, or proceed to a disciplinary hearing if there’s merit in the matter;
- Notify the employee of any disciplinary hearing in writing: before a disciplinary hearing takes place, the employee should be provided with a date, time and location of that hearing without unreasonable delay, whilst still allowing sufficient time to prepare their case;
- Notify the employee of the case against them: again before a disciplinary hearing takes place, the employee should be given written details of the allegations against them and the basis of these allegation(s), with a copy of all relevant evidence to be used at the hearing, including the documents in question and any witness statements taken;
- Notify the employee of their right to be accompanied: the employee must be offered the opportunity to be accompanied at any disciplinary hearing by a work colleague or a trade union representative, where any reasonable request made by them must be accommodated;
- Provide the employee with an opportunity to put their case: having set out the allegation(s) against them, together with the available evidence, the employee should be allowed to reply in full during the course of the disciplinary hearing, putting forward any defence or mitigation, with evidence in rebuttal where available. Ideally, the hearing should be conducted by a different person that carried out the investigation. If the person conducting the hearing decides that further investigation needs to be carried out before a decision can be made, the matter should be adjourned and rescheduled;
- Make a decision as to what, if any, disciplinary sanction should be imposed: where the employer is satisfied that the allegations of falsifying documents in the workplace have been proven, a decision must be made as to what disciplinary sanction should be imposed, including dismissal, either with or without notice. However, regard must be had to any previous decisions based on similar facts and any mitigating features;
- Notify the employee of the outcome in writing: the employee must be given written notification of any decision made, including the sanction to be imposed. The employer should also confirm the employee’s right of appeal against any disciplinary penalty, including dismissal. If the decision is to dismiss the employee, confirmation should be provided of the date when their employment will end and whether pay in lieu will be given.
In limited circumstances, even though falsifying documents in the workplace is a serious matter, where the misconduct has not had any adverse impact on the business and there’s a good explanation for the employee’s dishonesty, the employer may want to provide an alternative disciplinary sanction to dismissal, including a first or final written warning. On the face of it, falsifying documents is a matter of gross misconduct, typically justifying summary dismissal, but the circumstances may occasionally warrant a lesser sanction if the employer is confident that this was a one-off and relatively minor matter amounting to little or no harm.
DavidsonMorris’ employment lawyers support employers with all aspects of workforce management, including disciplinaries, investigations and dismissals. Working closely with our HR consultants, we provide employers with a holistic support to manage legal risk while promoting best practice in people management. For help and advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts.
Falsifying workplace documents FAQs
Is falsifying documents a crime in the UK?
Falsifying documents can amount to a criminal offence in the UK, for example, under the Fraud Act 2006, or the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 where the falsification of workplace records has put others at risk.
Can you be fired for falsifying documents?
Falsifying documents is a serious misconduct matter for which you can be summarily dismissed, without pay or pay in lieu of notice. You should be given an opportunity to defend any allegations, but if proven, you can be fired.
Is falsifying a document illegal?
Falsifying documents can be illegal, for example, it’s an offence under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to intentionally make a false entry in any register, book, notice or other document, such as safety inspection records.
What is the crime for falsifying documents?
Falsifying documents is potentially a crime under the Fraud Act 2006. It can also be a crime under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in the context of health and safety records.
Last updated: 1 September 2023