The next time you read about a case of murder, child abuse or arson in the press, consider this: the alleged offender is probably an employee as well as a police suspect. Late last year, supermarket chain Tesco faced just such a dilemma when staff member Tom Stephens was arrested on suspicion of murdering five sex workers in Ipswich. Tesco took the decision to suspend Stephens, but he was later released without charge.
According to employment law specialists, Tesco was treading on thin ice with this decision, risking being sued for wrongful dismissal. So how should HR respond to a member of staff who is suspected of a crime, or any other wrongdoing at work, such as sexual harassment, bullying or internet misuse?
Hannah Reed, senior employment rights officer at the TUC, says the case should serve as a warning to employers never to make knee-jerk reactions.
"I'm not criticising Tesco because I don't know all the facts of the case. I am simply saying the key thing for employers to bear in mind is that just because an individual is being investigated by the police is not necessarily grounds to suspend or dismiss them," she says. "A fair, no-blame approach is critical until the employer has carried out its own investigation, separate from the police investigation - a rule that should also apply to cases of suspected wrongdoing at work where the police are not involved."
In some situations - for example, where an employee faces accusations of bullying - it may be possible to move them into a different role or department until the investigation is over. In other situations, where it is deemed necessary to keep the employee away from the workplace (or where the employer has no choice, such as where the staff member has been charged and not bailed or is held while being questioned), Reed says that one means of demonstrating an unbiased position is to only ever suspend on full pay.
But Deb Emer, head of personnel at East Sussex County Council, believes in avoiding the term 'suspension' altogether wherever possible. "If there has been an allegation made against an employee that has an impact on their work, and