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The need for confidentiality and privacy is essential when dealing with people issues in the workplace.
I was talking to a new client this week and we were discussing the dos and don’ts of dealing with grievance and disciplinary issues. The client (we shall refer to as Lynne) told me about a situation that she had in the autumn of last year where an employee (Angela) came to her and asked if she could discuss a confidential matter.
Lynne said yes and they adjourned to Lynne’s office. It seemed that Angela was really concerned about some things that she had overhead one of her colleagues saying to another colleague and felt that there was an element of bullying going on in the workplace. Lynne was clearly perturbed and decided that she should nip the matter in the bud by speaking to both of the other employees.
She decided first to speak to the alleged bully and called her in to her office. The other members of staff noticed this – the company employs 13 staff in an open office environment – and started to summise what was going on. Having completed the interview with the bully, Lynne then called the alleged victim of the bullying in and, as you can now imagine, this caused even more discussion in the open office.
After both interviews, Lynne was really none the wiser as to how to proceed and, indeed, if there was an issue to proceed with. However, during the next few days, events then took over as the rest of staff had formed their own opinion through idle gossip and they collectively arrived at the conclusion that there was in issue of bullying.
As the next few days passed, it seemed to Lynne that things had quietened down. However, unbeknown to her, the staff had, somewhat surreptitiously, embarked on their own collective campaign against the alleged bully. The “bully” was effectively sent to Coventry and was the subject of a number of rather pointed and unsavoury comments from members of staff that were not involved in the initial allegation.
Within two weeks of the initial meetings in Lynne’s office, the “bully” handed in her notice. Lynne was horrified to find out why and was now faced with handling a very difficult and sensitive situation.
To cut a long story short, the “bully” left and submitted a claim for constructive dismissal on the grounds that her position had been made untenable by the insensitive handling of the whole situation resulting in her ending up being placed in the position of being harassed by many other members of staff.
The case did not go to an Employment Tribunal but Lynne had to make an out of court settlement, via a compromise agreement.
There are a number of things that Lynne could have done that would have avoided the ultimate outcome and I will deal with some of these in future columns. However, had she not acted impulsively and had held the initial meetings in a more confidential location, the rest of the staff would not have been able to witness the meetings and arrive at their own conclusion.
Most small businesses do not have access to a discreet meeting room (this applies to some larger companies, too) and so it is best in such circumstances to hire a meeting room in an independent location, away from the workplace. There are such rooms in Barrow and they can be hired at a very reasonable hourly rate.