Many employers behave creditably when coping with serious breakdowns in working relationships. As a guideline Employment Tribunal (ET) ruling showed, however, in such situations it is vital to pay very particular attention to the position of disabled employees whose mental health may be at stake.
The case concerned a woman who suffered from anxiety and depression which it was agreed amounted to a disability. Following her resignation, she launched ET proceedings against her NHS trust employer, alleging constructive unfair dismissal and a failure to make reasonable adjustments to cater for her disability.
Ruling on the matter, the ET noted that working relationships within her team were not always harmonious. She was convinced that she was a victim of bullying and harassment and that she had been denied managerial protection and support. By contrast, some of her colleagues viewed her as a source of the unrest.
Amidst rapidly deteriorating relationships within the team, a number of disciplinary findings were made against her. Her bullying and harassment complaints were carefully examined but not upheld. Following her suspension, considerable efforts were made to redeploy her to a new position within the trust.
It was the trust’s ultimate decision that she must return to her former role within the team that prompted her resignation. Managers made determined efforts to lay the ground for her orderly return and promote the restoration of proper working relationships within the team. The ET observed, however, that such efforts could not overcome her implacable hostility to the notion of returning.
In upholding her complaints, the ET noted that it was not without sympathy for the trust. It accepted that the principal decision-makers were faced with a difficult problem and did their best to resolve it in a fair way in the interests of all concerned. However, the fact that an employer has made creditable efforts to deal with a difficult workplace issue is not of itself an answer to a good claim.
It was evident, as a matter of common sense, that compelling the woman to return to an environment in which relationships had broken down was liable to exacerbate her mental health issues. Doing so was obviously a very bad idea and was likely to have a destabilising effect on the team, some members of which viewed the prospect of her return with as much dismay as she did.
Given her vulnerability and the trust’s knowledge of her mental health problems, she had been placed at a substantial disadvantage. A reasonable adjustment would have been to place her in a temporary role, away from the team, and to retain her in the trust’s redeployment pool for longer than the standard period of 12 weeks.
Her constructive unfair dismissal claim succeeded on the basis that the trust had breached the implied duty of trust and confidence it owed her. If not agreed, the amount of her compensation would be assessed at a further hearing.