BBC Scandal: Employer Lessons on Disciplinary Proceedings and Mental Health

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Last week saw another high-profile TV media figure in the spotlight for their alleged activities on the other side of the camera. This is a nightmare scenario for any employer, let alone one whose employees are in the public eye.

What happened? Allegations that a BBC presenter paid a teenager thousands of pounds for sexually explicit photographs emerged. The case has taken several twists and turns – with the police now announcing that there’s no evidence of a crime having been committed.

After a huge amount of speculation and social media frenzy, the attention then shifted towards the impact the high intensity of the media scrutiny has had on the person involved, with many questions being asked about disciplinaries and mental health and whether the employer has exercised a proper duty of care.

In this article, we examine how misconduct allegations affect employees’ mental health and what employers can do to ensure fair disciplinary proceedings while taking care of their employees.

1. Investigations – Prompt, Yet Thorough

Facing a disciplinary investigation is stressful for all involved, including the person carrying out the investigation.

It’s vital to remember that the purpose of an investigation is to gather facts, it’s not a ‘witch hunt’ and you should not start an investigation with the mindset of confirming what you think you already know, this leads to bias.

Instead, stick to the facts and make sure the employee facing allegations of misconduct knows that an investigation is being carried out and how long you expect that investigation to take. If they are suspended from work, again this should only be for as long as it is necessary to carry out the investigation.

2. Time

Having an investigation hanging over the head of an employee for an unreasonably long period, especially if the allegations are severe enough to potentially result in the termination of their employment, will negatively impact employee mental health and could also affect the fairness of any decision later down the line.

So, make sure the person carrying out the investigation has the time to do so, for example, don’t ask someone to carry out an investigation if they are about to go on annual leave for a fortnight.

3. Keeping the Employee Informed

Levels of anxiety increase when communication is less than forthcoming. So, if the investigation is taking longer than originally hoped, let the employee know. A simple holding letter, a brief meeting, or a telephone call to give an update is all that is required to avoid issues with mental health in the workplace.

4. Outcomes – More Haste, Less Speed

Whether it is the outcome of an investigation recommending formal disciplinary action or whether the disciplinary hearing has taken place and the disciplinary decision is pending- the temptation to wrap matters up quickly is understandable.

For example, communicating the outcome of the disciplinary at the end of the disciplinary hearing sends out one message and one message only- the decision was pre-determined. This will leave the chair of the hearing open to allegations of bias and can leave the employee feeling they have been unfairly treated which can be detrimental to the mental well-being of the member of staff.

It’s important to remember to carefully consider your decision but in as timely a manner as possible- there is nothing to be gained by acting in haste and creating potential mental health issues in the workplace.

5. Confidentiality Versus The ‘Rumour Mill’- Informing Other Staff Members That an Allegation Has Been Made

The employer has a duty of confidentiality towards the person facing allegations of misconduct but as we have seen over the last week or so, people will speculate and often it is that speculation that can trigger the most stress and anxiety. Getting the balance right is so important when it comes to employee depression and disciplinary action.

If the rumour mill is beginning to turn or you are concerned that any witnesses may be gossiping, it is important to make clear that witnesses must not discuss the matter with anyone in or outside the business, this includes over social media, otherwise, they may find themselves subject to a disciplinary investigation.  

Where you are approached by ‘curious’ staff, bear in mind that employees do not have a right to demand confidential information about a colleague, so there is no obligation to provide it. If someone is suspended, however, the other members of the team can be informed that the person is on a period of leave.

Avensure Employer Lessons on Disciplinary Proceedings and Mental Health x

6. Stress-Related Sickness During a Formal Process

Where the stress of facing formal action does become too much, an employee may be absent due to sickness. It may be the work-related stress of the formal proceedings that is the reason for the absence, or perhaps the absence is completely unrelated, whatever the circumstances don’t be tempted to view this simply as a delay tactic.

If the employee is suspended, their sickness absence will supersede the suspension; therefore, you are likely to be lifting the suspension and placing the employee on sick leave/pay, if that is the case the employee should be informed in writing.

Whether the disciplinary proceedings should continue, should be weighed up very carefully and will be dependent on the individual circumstances and if you feel they have mental health problems at work. Usually, it is better to place the matter on hold until such time as the employee’s health improves.

If the employee is absent due to the stress of the proceedings, it may be tempting to think the sooner the matter is dealt with the better. However, it is not always the employer that should make this call and an employee should not be pressured into attending any formal hearings if they are too unwell to do so.

Unfortunately, employee issues with mental health and disciplinary proceedings go hand in hand. Whatever the reason for the absence if the employee feels able to proceed, then do so, otherwise it may be advisable for their doctor or occupational health to advise if the employee is medically able to continue.

7. Support During a Disciplinary Process for The Employer, The Employee And Any Witnesses

Disciplinary proceedings are not something anyone looks forward to and they are often as stressful for the employer as they are for the employee and can very easily lead to mental health issues in the workplace.

The employer has a duty of care to all involved, so it’s very important to consider the following top tips to try and limit the impact on the employees mental health of those involved:

  • Remember – The Employee Under Investigation Is Also a Witness!

It’s surprising how often employees are not asked for their version of events prior to formal action being taken against them. This is unfair, and when a procedure is unfair it adds to the stress and anxiety levels of all involved.

  • Make Sure Your Witnesses Understand Their Role!

Witnesses are giving evidence in confidence but any witnesses providing evidence should be told their evidence will be used as part of the formal proceedings.

This means the employee under investigation will be able to see their statement to ensure the employee can properly defend themselves. To avoid mental health issues in the workplace be upfront about this to reduce the risk of witnesses backing out at the last minute.

Witnesses shouldn’t be pressured into giving evidence against their will. Witnesses should also be protected from victimisation, they should be informed of who to come to in the event they have any questions or concerns, or if they experience pressure to withdraw or change their evidence.

  • Keep In Touch With An Employee on Suspension!

You wouldn’t ignore an employee absent due to sickness, so don’t ignore the welfare of an employee on suspension.

To avoid employee mental health problems at work make sure they are kept updated and that they know who to speak to if they have any questions or require any welfare support.

  • No Surprises!

A disciplinary hearing is not an ambush if it is treated as such it’s stressful for the employee and the person chairing the hearing.

Remember- employees facing disciplinary action have a right to see the evidence that will be used to consider the allegations against them and the purpose of the disciplinary is for the employee to put forward their explanations and any mitigation. Therefore, the employer should not be introducing new evidence in the hearing and the line of questioning should be clear, unambiguous and not misleading.

  • Make Sure Those Involved with The Process Know What They’re Doing!

Employers are not expected to be experts in HR and Employment Law, but they are expected to adhere to the law and best practices. Therefore, advice should be taken from Avensure at the earliest opportunity, not only so that we can ensure you are legally compliant in any action you take but so we can advise and support you throughout the process.

We will guide you at every stage, assist in the drafting of all necessary paperwork such as disciplinary invitation letters and we will also guide your investigation.

Getting us involved from the beginning and keeping us updated throughout, reduces the risk of having to reconvene hearings, and deal with unnecessary appeals on procedural grounds and it will also take some of the pressure off those involved.

Need Support?

From investigations to mental well-being, employers have a duty of care in protecting their people.

If you need guidance on disciplinaries, mental health support or If your company is involved in a disciplinary proceeding involving mental health issues, our employment team is here to help. Contact us today by clicking here: Avensure Contact!