Confidentiality: Stick to the code

I joined West Yorkshire Probation Board in January 2003 after 22 years in the NHS – including 13 in OH – and left my management position in an NHS Trust hospital to set up an OH services unit from scratch.

That June, I undertook pre-employment screening on a prospective probation officer (X), who was a Hepatitis B carrier, and I wrote to the individual’s specialist for further information. Upon receiving this information I then screened X fit for the proposed post.

When the HR function found a discrepancy in the applicant’s application form and references in relation to sickness and absence, it asked to see the health questionnaire. I informed HR that no access could be given without the individual’s consent.

Eventually, with the permission of X, I wrote to personnel giving an explanation for the absences. I also explained that X was prepared to speak to personnel about these absences, but HR declined this offer.

In July, when I overheard a conversation between members of the personnel team about accessing the individual’s file, I reiterated that consent needed to be sought from X.

The following day while I was driving to a conference in horrendous driving conditions my manager rang me on my mobile to say she was going to access the form as discussed the night before. I again said I couldn’t allow this to happen but she said that as OH reported to HR she had the right to see the file.

She agreed to discuss the issue with my mentor who later faxed her the Royal College of Physicians’ Guidance on Ethics. I was so upset I missed my turning and went 20 miles out of my way.

Later I was informed that the HR manager had asked for the file without explaining that I had refused her access to it, and had taken it for an hour. I immediately contacted the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) as to what I should do next.

When I returned to work the following day the atmosphere was terrible. I spoke to Carol Bannister, the RCN OH adviser, and a meeting with the personnel manager was requested but didn’t take place until three months later.

In the meantime my working relationship with my manager, while I tried to remain professional, continued to be strained.

I do not remember much about the meeting itself as I was too distraught and Carol did all the talking. But I was informed, without warning, that the personnel department would take responsibility for pre-employment screening from me.

The following week the HR director told me that disciplinary proceedings had been started against me for disobeying an instruction. I left his office and was beside myself, my world had turned upside down.

While on sickness absence with work-related stress, I received a letter saying that my contract had been terminated.

The following year proceeded to be a roller coaster as I brought my claim, under RCN guidance. As I had been less than a year in employment I had no employment protection by law so the decision was taken to fight the case on the issue of confidentiality. I was told it would be extremely difficult to win.

Over the next 12 months while my health deteriorated, letters arrived at home, statements were checked and rechecked, and there were endless telephone conversations. I received tremendous support from my family and peers, but I still felt lonely. As I became aware of the implications for OH practice I felt at times as if I had the whole of the OH profession on my shoulders.

The Employment Tribunal was scheduled for two days and I spent most of the first day and part of the second in the witness stand. It was harrowing.

The day I heard I had won, I had to ask them to repeat it three times.  

I have been told now to try and put this behind me and move on, to find some closure. This is difficult as prospective employers see that my contract was terminated and I have to explain why. As nurses, this generally tends to happen if there has been gross professional misconduct yet I have done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, when I am asked if I would do it again the answer is yes.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those colleagues who supported me: Joan Hall (mentor), Penny Grassby and Annette Bingham (Sheffield City Council), Sue Wilson (good friend), Sue West (RCN), Kevin McNerny (lawyer, RCN) and all my OH group.


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