Victim of NHS manager’s practical joke wins £10k pay out

Mrs Hurley worked at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust in Eastbourne
Simon Turner / Alamy Stock Photo

A former employee at an NHS trust who was the subject of a practical joke by her manager and was bullied by colleagues has won almost £10,000 in compensation for unfair dismissal.

The Croydon employment tribunal heard that Mrs Hurley’s time working at the East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust in Eastbourne as a deputy finance business partner was stressful, hostile, isolating and upsetting.

She left the trust after her many claims about colleagues’ conduct were dismissed during a grievance procedure, although they were later upheld when investigated further.

Upon joining the trust in October 2016, Hurley felt there was a lack of training and found her workload difficult to manage.

The level of work increased sharply when a colleague left, and she was signed off sick with stress on 30 March 2017. When she returned to work at the end of June that year, her workload increased again when she was asked to train a new starter.

Amid this period of heavy workload her manager, Ms Armstrong, decided to play a practical joke on her. While Hurley was dealing with the financial month end – a busy period for any finance team – Armstrong sent her an email reminding her of a three-hour presentation she needed to deliver to the senior management team the following day. Armstrong mocked up an email purportedly from the general manager to corroborate the story, and colleagues played along by agreeing that Ms Armstrong had informed Mrs Hurley about the presentation earlier that week, suggesting she must have forgotten about it.

Hurley found the claim that she was to deliver a presentation the following day very stressful, stopped her urgent work for financial month end, and left work at 4pm believing she would have to work into the early hours of the next morning to prepare the presentation.

At 16:37 that afternoon, Armstrong sent her an email stating: “Only joshing!!!! Have a great day.”

The judgment says: “There is no possible justification for doing that to a member of staff in any circumstances. But Hurley was busy, stressed, and had already been signed off sick. That was a fundamental breach of contract by itself, and Hurley she would have been entitled to resign at that point. She did not however. People feel they must try to take practical jokes in good part, but she remained very unhappy about it.”

Transition to a new team

Around the same time, the trust began to establish a central finance team and Hurley agreed to a new role there. The transition to the new team, which began in October 2017, was difficult and her team members were not happy with the changes. One team member refused to do anything Hurley asked of him.

After consulting her union about the alleged bullying, she spoke to the department’s manager, Ms Graham, in November. She believed news about this meeting had got out as from then on the claimant began to be excluded by colleagues – one colleague excluded her from tea rounds and staff tampered with spreadsheets she had produced.

In January 2018 Graham decided to put together an action plan of support and to share the trust’s behavioural framework with staff to remind them of the expected standards. However, this seemed to have little effect as Hurley was still being obstructed from performing her role.

In another incident, Armstrong sent the claimant the notes from her appraisal, which Hurley claimed were unduly negative and did not reflect the tone of the appraisal meeting, and altered the dates on the email to suggest it was sent a month earlier.

Hurley raised this, alongside her other complaints about the conduct of colleagues, in a grievance submitted during a period of stress-related sick leave from March to June 2018.

When she returned to work, she found the contents of her desk had been removed and no one admitted who had cleared them.

Dismissed grievance

The trust’s investigation into her grievance upheld her complaint about Armstrong’s practical joke, but dismissed her other complaints about other incidents of alleged bullying and training shortcomings.

This outcome of the investigation appeared to be the last straw for Hurley. She resigned on 14 September 2018, stating that the trust had not handled her complaints or the grievance process well and that she had felt isolated and uncomfortable working there.

Somewhat unusually for a case at an employment tribunal, the trust reviewed her grievance after she left and upheld all of her complaints. Armstrong was disciplined for falsifying emails.

The attitude of colleagues appears to have followed hard on the heels of the informal complaint about Ms Armstrong, and management efforts to address the culture appear to have had little effect, and perhaps even resulted in further isolation” – Employment judge Fowell

Judge Fowell said: “I see this as a connected series of events, beginning with the lack of training, the purported joke, the actions taken to undermine Mrs Hurley as a manager, with her team amending or removing her work, the unduly negative appraisal and efforts to conceal this, followed by further isolation and small pranks such as deleting files.

“The attitude of colleagues appears to have followed hard on the heels of the informal complaint about Ms Armstrong, and management efforts to address the culture appear to have had little effect, and perhaps even resulted in further isolation.

“The Trust is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees, even more junior staff, but here the mainspring her relationship with [Ms] Armstrong, and other staff appeared to side with her.

“The fact that her manager was disciplined as a result is enough to show that this was unacceptable, indeed dishonest, behaviour, entitling Mrs Hurley to resign.”

As she had found alternative employment shortly after leaving the NHS trust, reducing her losses considerably, Hurley was awarded £9,890.60 in compensation for unfair dismissal.

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