A Costa coffee shop manager has won a £14,000 payout after she was fired for taking her jacket with her when a fire alarm went off at a store.
Natalia Dudenko ‘singlehandedly’ evacuated the ‘packed’ Edinburgh shop in six minutes – having to remove elderly, disabled, and unhappy customers – and grabbed her coat as it was cold and raining outside.
However, the assistant manager faced an investigation and was sacked after her bosses claimed she took too long in evacuating and that fetching her jacket amounted to gross misconduct.
Mrs Dudenko, 35, was accused of leading a ‘confused and disorganised’ evacuation and putting others people’s safety at risk when she was sacked by bosses.
Now, the married mother-of-one has successfully sued the coffee giant for unfair dismissal, with a tribunal criticising the popular chain for its decision.
A judge ruled it was ‘unreasonable’ for Costa Coffee to conclude that six minutes was too long and said Ms Dudenko retrieving her jacket merited a written warning ‘at most’.
The tribunal heard a fire alarm went off at the store – located inside a Tesco superstore – at 3.03pm on November 23 in 2019, when the Costa was busy as it was a Saturday in the run-up to Christmas.
Seven customers ‘complained or refused’ or asked for refunds, some were parents with babies in pushchairs, others were ‘slow-moving’ elderly or disabled people who required a walking stick.
Mrs Dudenko evacuated the store – which did not have a fire – by 3.09pm and later told bosses she grabbed her coat after colleagues did the same.
Mrs Dudenko said: ‘I did not think it would take any extra time to grab our jackets. It was cold and it was raining outside – I thought it was reasonable.’
When she was dismissed, a Costa investigation report said: ‘Failure to take charge and instruct staff effectively and efficiently during fire evacuation, which lead to your inability to control the situation.
‘This resulted in staff being confused and disorganised, unable to contribute towards the evacuation and therefore prolonging it.
A report by Costa compiled after Ms Dudenko was dismissed said she failed to take charge and was unable to control the situation during fire evacuation at the store in Edinburgh (file photo)
‘This ultimately placed the team and customers at risk.’
Mrs Dudenko, who earned £10.28 an hour, complained she was being ‘singled out’ as she received the same training as her colleagues who didn’t face disciplinary action for getting their coats but lost her appeal.
Employment Judge Mel Sangster, sitting in Edinburgh, ruled that Costa unfairly dismissed Mrs Dudenko and ordered the company to pay her £14,400 compensation.
Judge Sangster said it was not ‘reasonable’ to sack her for collecting a jacket.
She said: ‘Notwithstanding the fact that Mrs Dudenko was the most senior employee on site on the day in question, no reasonable employer would have categorised the conduct as gross misconduct.
‘The tribunal found that, at most, given the circumstances, this would have merited a written warning.’
The judge also said Mrs Dudenko was right to pause and assess the situation and that Costa was ‘unreasonable’ in concluding that six minutes was too long.
She said: ‘No reasonable employer would have determined it was gross misconduct for an individual not to start a fire evacuation immediately, when her position was that she delayed slightly (for seconds rather than minutes) to assess the situation and whether the lines of exit were clear, before asking all the customers in the store to leave by that route.
Ms Dudenko won £14k and says she hopes her story inspires others to stand up for themselves
‘Had she failed to do so, she may have directed customers towards a fire or other hazard.
‘The identification of the safest exit requires to be assessed at the outset, which will necessarily involve a very short delay.’
She added: ‘The tribunal found that Mrs Dudenko otherwise handled the evacuation of the store as best she could in the circumstances, given the very limited training she had received, the difficulties she experienced with customers refusing to leave the store and the absence of any assistance whatsoever from the other members of staff on duty that day.’
Mrs Dudenko, who now lives in Bathgate, Scotland, is now a stay-at-home mother with her nine-month-old baby who says it will be ‘hard to find a new job in a similar position on part-time’.
But, speaking after the decision, Mrs Dudenko said she hopes to inspire other mistreated workers to stand up for themselves.
She said: ‘I am grateful for my family and friends for their great support, it was massive challenge especially as I did not have a lawyer or assistance.
‘My case should be an example that a simple employee can always prove they are right even if they stand against a big company like Costa.
‘Nobody should be treated like I was and I would like to encourage everyone to stand up for their rights and never give up if they are mistreated.’