Stephen Smith

Suspensions - you deserve more support when everything's on the line

Tue 18 Oct 2016

Investigations and grievances can often drag on for months or years, creating uncertainty and stress for everyone involved. Steve Smith calls for a more supportive approach from NHS employers

“I didn’t think anyone would care what I had to say.’’ “This is a pack of lies and I’ve been suspended: I can’t believe it.” “I’ve been judged and sentenced already.” “At last: someone on my side.” “Thank you for listening.”
Those are just some of the more memorable words from the many MIP members who have recently found themselves caught up in grievances or investigations, often with scant support from their employers.

As MiP national officers, my colleagues and I advise senior healthcare managers on all aspects of investigations and grievances: those considering or lodging a grievance; those who are the subject of a grievance; those asked to be witnesses; those interviewed; those responding to disciplinary charges or accusations; those taking part in hearings and outcome meetings; and, finally, those dealing with the fall-out.

It gives MIP an informed and rounded perspective on the most challenging work situations, where career prospects, professional and personal integrity are often on the line. And it is clear from that perspective there is a systemic void – namely the lack of support offered to the people involved.

By support, I don’t mean warm words and the phone number of the Employee Assistance Programme. I mean tangible, helpful, person-centred support for everyone involved. I’m absolutely certain that HR professionals and line managers are acting in good faith in the overwhelming majority of cases, but too often the gap between intent and outcome remains significant.

For example, suspension from duty is, in legal terms, a ‘neutral’ act. Yet from the perspective of people who are suspended it invariably feels punitive. If employers truly want to fulfil their duty of being supportive, then a much more creative and sparing approach to suspensions is needed.

And for staff accused of inappropriate conduct? The gap between the default presumption of innocence unless proven guilty and the lived experience of MIP members is wide and needs to be bridged.

Too often, I hear health professionals talking about how they have been arbitrarily cold-shouldered or not supported by their peers, or left wholly reliant on their trade union for advice and support because their employer is, in the words of one member, “nowhere to be found”.

But rather than merely assign blame, I thought I’d offer three initial suggestions for improving matters.

1.    Unless there is a weight of evidence showing that an individual’s presence at work is dangerous, poses a risk to patient safety, the organisation’s finances or is likely to lead to someone interfering with an investigation, suspension should be the last and not the first resort. We need a much more evidence-based approach, with shorter suspensions and proper use of redeployment options.

2.    We need to recognise that real people are by default involved in challenging, confrontational, stressful and adversarial situations. Careers, employment prospects and reputations can be at stake, which means all parties involved need practical institutional support and guidance, such as a named HR contact to walk them through policies, procedures and outcomes.

3.    The challenging and difficult nature of these situations involving suspensions, investigations and grievances is always exacerbated by elongated timescales, lack of communication and the fear of an unknown outcome. Sticking to hearing and investigation timescales (which are always set out in policies!), agreeing subsequent actions, being as transparent as possible and advising all parties regularly are all ways to reduce or mitigate the stress and adverse impact these difficult and stressful situations.

Steve Smith is MiP national officer for north-west London and south-central England.

“The clear misuse of a neutral act”

Across the UK, MiP national officers and reps are reporting a surge in cases of NHS managers being suspended, often on flimsy or spurious grounds and even in contravention of employers’ own HR policies.

In the NHS, staff should only be suspended as a last resort. But there are growing signs of suspensions being used without due cause and sometimes on the basis of a single, unsubstantiated allegation.

MiP national officer Steve Smith has been helping one clinical manager who lodged a grievance against her employer and found herself suspended the next day as a result of unrelated allegations for which the trust presented no evidence. “This is clearly a punitive, retaliatory act,” says Steve. “The accusations against her do not merit an ongoing suspension. The trust’s policy requires suspension if the member’s attendance at work ‘poses a risk to patients, colleagues or the trust’s financial security’. Needless to say, the trust has not justified that or related the suspension to that policy.

“This is a clear misuse of a supposedly neutral act – suspension – by senior managers and HR staff who know better than this,” adds Steve. “MIP has already instructed solicitors on the matter and we’re simply waiting for the trust’s investigation to play out before beginning legal action on our member’s behalf, if it proves necessary to do so. This sort of institutional bullying can’t and won’t go unanswered.”

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