A rogue ruling by an employment tribunal has sent tremors through the world of industrial relations - threatening chaos in firms where executive culls are on the cards.
The controversial decision - which effectively says junior employees can be sacked to create vacancies for senior executives whose jobs have been declared redundant - turns conventional practice on its head.
Employment law specialist Ranjit Dhindsa, who works in the Midlands office of global top-25 law firm Reed Smith, said last night that the ruling by the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) had established an alarming precedent.
The case that established the new law involved a small publishing firm that faced financial problems in 2003 and declared its senior editor redundant as a cost cutting measure.
Under the rules governing redundancy, firms are obliged to offer targeted employees alternative work if it is available.
"Because it is only a small firm, with around 12 full time staff and a couple of secretaries, there were no vacancies, and the redundancy went ahead, even though the employee concerned produced 11 reasons why he should keep his job," said Ms Dhindsa.
"The man took his claim to an employment tribunal alleging unfair dismissal - and the EAT has now ruled in his favour.
"In practise this means the tribunal believes consideration should have been given to the dismissal of someone more junior to create a vacancy into which the senior man could step.
"The implications of that are mind boggling. There are very strict procedures to be followed before an employer can get rid of a member of staff, and companies that comply with this new requirement, and sack an employee lower down the hierarchy to create an artificial vacancy, could find themselves facing another case for unfair dismissal.
"They will be trapped between a rock and a hard place."
Ms Dhindsa says that although the ruling will be hard for small firms, it will be magnified many times over in larger companies where there is greater scope for the domino effect to develop.
"If this remains law, each person nominated for redundancy will be able to argue that the axe should fall on a subordinate," she said. "In some large companies the process could drag on for ever."
Ms Dhindsa added: "The EAT didn't go so far as to say that employers always have to dismiss a subordinate to create a job for a redundant executive, but they have said the option must be considered. And unless and until the ruling is overturned, it will remain law."