Unless you were overseas or “off grid” you’ll be more than aware of one of BBC’s leading newsreaders becoming the subject of his own headline news.
I don’t normally jump onto “trending” topics to surf on a big wave of frothy hashtags and I want to make it clear that this article is born out of what I consider to be the lessons we need to learn from a very public event that may, hopefully in less dramatic fashion, be something you find yourself managing in your organisation.
As an employment lawyer and business owner I understand the importance of effective communication and following clear processes, especially with people management and complaint handling. Get them wrong and it can have very serious consequences, impacting an organisation’s reputation.
In this article, we will explore the best practices for managing such a crisis, specifically when it involves the suspension of a senior employee based on external complaints of inappropriate behaviour. We will discuss the disciplinary process, as well as effective internal and external communication strategies to mitigate reputational damage.
The manner and salacious content of the BBC’s breaking story led to a maelstrom of media activity including awful, frenzied speculation on social media as to the identity of the personality in question.
As we now know, the individual suspended by the BBC, is one of their most senior news broadcasters. A statement released on behalf of the employee outlined the need for matters to be clarified given false and damaging accusations of others and that as a direct result of events he was undergoing treatment following a serious failing of his mental health.
Key to getting a handle on such a matter lies a few well established, legal processes that all organisations should follow. Above all they help to avoid making any hasty, “knee jerk” decisions that could have significant, long-term consequences.
With any report of behaviours that may breach criminal, civil law, or your own policies you owe a duty of care to the individual(s) involved to conduct a thorough, impartial and ideally swift investigation. The longer matters take the greater the prospect of confidences being breached, gossip and disruption internally or potentially as in the case of the BBC reputational damage to those involved as well as the organisation.
With the BBC case and the original complaint, matters are somewhat complicated by virtue of the fact the complainants were not directly impacted by the alleged acts. A mother and stepfather approached the BBC making allegations of inappropriate behaviour of one of its staff. This 2nd hand reporting of a problem is known as “hearsay” and if the case were to be heard in court would be considered inadmissible evidence. Nevertheless, the allegations were clearly concerning in as much as it demonstrated behaviour which, whilst not necessarily illegal if true, highlight activity which may be “out of character” and indicative of a deeper issue related to wellbeing and poor mental health.
The BBC had a sensitive balancing act in this case and it would appear they either deliberated too long or decided they could not act given the nature of the complaint. With the story offered to the Sun and subsequent shock of daily headlines stopping short of naming the newsreader the opportunity to conduct a measured and confidential investigation became very challenging.
To be clear I’m not defending the BBC or condoning the employee’s conduct, not least as there’s a great deal we do not know about the matter and there’s already been far too much idle speculation. The Sun (News Group Newspapers) justification for publishing the story hangs on the “public interest” angle which considering the “hearsay” aspect and strong repudiation of the story by the complainant’s son’s lawyers, is looking somewhat shaky.
I sincerely hope that your organisation does not suffer such a potentially damaging crisis as this however as business owners we all know the unexpected can happen. What we need to do is prepare ourselves as best we can so that in the event of an emergency involving an employee, you can respond with calm assuredness and clarity.
If I have one overriding criticism of the BBC, especially as a globally renowned media corporation, they failed to communicate with sufficient certainty and assertiveness over the process being followed. Despite recent accounts of serious failings in dealing with similar situations you’d think they’d now be far better prepared and one of the shining lights in dealing with such crises.
The Importance of a Disciplinary Process:
When facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour, it is crucial to adhere to a fair and robust disciplinary process. This process aims to ensure that all parties involved are treated fairly, and appropriate action is taken based on evidence.
Managing an Employee Centred Crisis:
- Preserve Confidentiality: Confidentiality is paramount when dealing with potentially damaging complaints. Limit access to sensitive information to only those directly involved in the investigation and decision-making process and impress on all parties involved the importance of confidentiality. This helps maintain trust and confidence, and prevents unnecessary speculation.
- Conduct a Thorough Investigation: Ensure that a comprehensive investigation is conducted promptly and impartially. This investigation should involve gathering evidence, interviewing relevant parties, and seeking statements from witnesses. It is essential to be thorough and objective to arrive at a fair and well-founded conclusion. It’s not considered good practice to have the same individual carrying out these roles in that a level of objectivity is required to ensure a fair and reasonable process. Any subsequent action brought before a tribunal would likely find the management in this case as “unfair”.
- Communicate Internally: Transparency and clear communication are vital within the organisation during a crisis. Inform relevant employees about the situation, assuring them that the matter is being handled professionally. Emphasise that the organisation remains committed to maintaining a safe and inclusive working environment for all employees.
- Temporary Measures: While the investigation is ongoing, it may be necessary to suspend the accused employee temporarily. This should be communicated in a sensitive and confidential manner. Decisions to suspend an employee should not be taken lightly but may be appropriate as a step to protect the interests of all parties until a thorough investigation has taken place.
- Definitions – Your Grievance & Disciplinary policy should provide examples of gross misconduct but remember the ACAS definition: Gross misconduct is when an employee has done something that’s very serious or has very serious effects. Examples could include fraud. physical violence. serious lack of care to their duties or other people (‘gross negligence’)
- Not Following Procedures – ACAS has a clearly laid out policy which is considered acceptable by tribunals and a failure to follow the steps could render a subsequent dismissal unfair.
- Disciplinary Hearings – if the investigation suggests that there is a case for the employee to answer, disciplinary sanctions should only be applied following a properly convened disciplinary hearing.
- Not Providing Written Notice – if a hearing is called the employer must clearly set out the reasons and the process allowing time for the employee to prepare and arrange for someone to accompany them to the hearing, which is a statutory right.
- External Communication: Communicating with external stakeholders, such as clients, suppliers, and the media is not ordinarily necessary for most matters. If the case is already in the public domain, you may wish to deal with the speculation and inappropriate comments however this requires a cautious and strategic approach. While maintaining confidentiality, consider providing a brief statement that acknowledges the existence of a complaint, reassures stakeholders that the matter is being addressed, and affirms the company’s commitment to its values and policies.
- Reputational Management: To safeguard the business’s reputation, consider appointing a spokesperson to handle media inquiries and external communications. This ensures consistent messaging and minimizes the risk of miscommunication. Monitor public sentiment and address any misinformation promptly and accurately.
Handling a crisis involving a potentially damaging complaint and the loss of a senior employee is a challenging task. By following a fair and transparent process, conducting thorough investigations, and implementing effective communication strategies, you can lessen the negative impact on your colleagues, culture and mitigate reputational damage.
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