The current (at the time of writing) allegations against an unnamed (again at the time of writing) BBC Presenter have caused a media frenzy and plenty of speculation, while also showing up some of the vagaries of media law. This post is not to discuss the specific issues in this case (we don’t know them and only have partial media reports about what has or hasn’t happened). But there are also plenty of employment law and HR issues that need to be considered when dealing with serious allegations against a member of staff.
The first of these is that if an allegation of this type is made, the organisation should respond to it immediately – but that this should be the start of an investigation process into what has happened, not jumping to conclusions. If the incidents have happened outside work this can make the process even more complicated. Even where things seem a little more clear-cut, a proper investigation may take a couple of weeks, even in a small business – as witnesses may need to be spoken to, meetings noted and documents reviewed, and a final report produced.
If the matter appears to involve something that may be criminal in nature, the organisation will probably want to involve the police. In my experience, the police will respond to such issues in one of two ways
- They will suggest that there appears to be nothing to the issue from a criminal perspective and advise you to simply proceed in accordance with your internal procedures. In some cases they may ask you to report back with your findings in case further information means they need to rethink this, or
- They will ask you to pause any internal process while their own enquiries are made, so as not to prejudice (or warn individuals about) the police investigation.
You may want to suspend the member of staff while the investigation is ongoing. In the past this was assumed to be automatic in cases where serious allegations were made. However, recent Tribunal cases have suggested that suspension should be considered as one possible option and if there are other, less draconian possibilities – such as moving the employee to a different location – these should be looked at.
You also have a duty of care to the individual who has been accused of the alleged offence, as well as any others who may be involved. This means keeping details confidential within the investigation and certainly not making any public commentary until matters are concluded. This applies even when the organisation is a high-profile publicly funded body like the BBC (regardless of any additional media law implications).
In this case, if the BBC have known about the allegations against a staff member for over 7 weeks and not done anything until the news story broke last week, then they could be accused of failing to respond to the issues (and it wouldn’t be the first time that they have made basic HR mistakes). If however, they have been investigating but needed time to do so thoroughly (and may have had to wait for the ‘green light’ from the police first) then 7 weeks in not necessarily an unusual period for a disciplinary investigation. The fact that the Director-General of the BBC does not appear to be in possession of the full facts is also not unusual – he might need to be involved in a subsequent disciplinary hearing and so should only find out the detail when the investigation is completed.
The BBC has employment law responsibilities – these may be inconvenient for certain sections of the media and for those who like to speculate on social media, but it doesn’t mean that the organisation can ignore them. If you are an employer in this situation, the same responsibilities apply to you, regardless of any external pressure. You are the one who will face the unfair dismissal (or worse) claim with its financial consequences for your business if you don’t do things in a correct way.