I used to work with somebody in a large blue chip organisation who insisted on suspending people every time they were accused of gross misconduct.
She looked after the whole tribunal process for the company - the fact that the job existed tells you something!
I wasn’t generally her favourite person, as I’ve always been (dare I say it) pragmatic about these things and there was no way I would apply a blanket policy to each situation - I would make what I felt was the best decision for the employees and for the company on a case by case basis.
She was taking the approach she did, because at the time ACAS (in their wisdom) advised employers about the risk of losing employment tribunals if an employee is dismissed.
This is typical of the approach I see from so many employers whenever we get involved in mediations.
The employer has often focused their thinking around potential litigation and the impact on the company but not giving equal (or in some cases any) thought to the negative repercussions that it will have on the employee.
I see this approach as limbo dancing rather than pole vaulting (if you’re wondering what on earth I’m on about, see my other blog).
Just because we say to employees that suspension isn’t any indicator of guilt, doesn’t mean it isn’t!
I’m pretty sure the people who jump straight to suspension would be the first to complain if the same thing happened to them - how could the company possibly treat them like they’re guilty just because there’s an allegation made against them.
What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
I’m quite clear about these situations - each decision should be made in isolation - there should not be a sheep dip policy.
Every situation is unique and the way I have viewed these decisions when I’ve had to make them is a simple risk assessment approach, as you would (or should) in a safety hazard situation.
Consider likelihood and severity - then mitigate the risk to an acceptable level. Doing this kind of assessment takes minutes - not hours or days.
There are, in my book, four simple steps that employers need to consider:-
1. Ensure that somebody who does not have a pre-determined outcome in mind can make an objective assessment - avoid the “they must hang for this” people - there are lots of these around!
2. Carry out two assessments - one from the business perspective and another from the employee’s.
3. Give proper (and I mean proper!) consideration to every opportunity to minimise the highest risks identified from both assessments.
4. Make the decision based on the mitigations considered and communicate feedback clearly to the employee.
Following this approach, I have suspended employees before - examples which spring to mind are an employee who said he had planted a bomb at work, a Finance Director accused of fraud and an employee who brought a knife to work and stabbed a colleague who was subsequently rushed to hospital.
In each of those cases the risk to the company was high should the accusations be collaborated and the ability to mitigate the risk was low. The risk assessment for the employee also showed risk, especially around reputation and relationships but these were low compared to others.
Interestingly, of these three cases, only one resulted in a dismissal. One case resulted in a formal warning and another didn’t receive any sanction at all - but the decision to suspend was the right one at the time.
Then there are the numerous accusations of gross misconduct where I have not suspended - far too many to count!
The employee accused of stealing products, the person thought to be drunk at work, the employee who allegedly hit another over the head with a shovel - there are so many examples where, through objective assessments, employees have not been suspended.
Whilst suspension may not have been the answer for these cases, most have had some kind of impact, such as temporarily moving areas or access restrictions to systems, etc - all part of the risk mitigation for the employer - but equally for the employee.
Moving into another job temporarily usually causes much less of a “guilty” stigma for the employee. They don’t get all the questions about where they’ve disappeared to, or the impact of the rumours that spread like wildfire.
Really importantly, the potential effect on mental health to an employee sat at home, worried about their job and nobody talking to them is vastly reduced.
One thing many employers don’t consider either (despite their fear of litigation) is the risk that comes with protracted investigatory procedures - many take months.
That’s a long time to be sat at home worrying and for the assumption of guilt to be fuelled. I wouldn’t fancy justifying why it took so long and why I put the employee in a situation whereby they felt so bad they had to resign.
Thankfully, ACAS have since changed their guidance over suspension but either way guidance is purely what it says - guidance - the right decision is the one which considers the employee just as much as the business.
As with everything, give due consideration to people and treat them how you’d like to be treated and you won’t go far wrong, in my experience!