A top employment lawyer has said “time is of the essence” in the BBC’s probe into allegations against one of its presenters – but that a “fair and impartial investigation is key”.

Helen Watson, Partner and Head of Employment Law at top legal firm Aaron & Partners, has said the longer the process takes, the more chance there is of the employee developing mental health issues and it reaching a point where their return to the workplace becomes “untenable”.

The corporation suspended the unnamed individual last week following allegations that one of its presenters had paid a teenager for sexually explicit photos. The Sun said it had seen evidence to back the mother’s claims.

It is not yet known how long the suspension will last, however the corporation has said it is working as fast as possible to “establish the facts”.

Samantha Dickinson, equality and diversity partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter said: 

“While some have criticised the BBC for the apparent delay in suspending the unnamed presenter at the centre of these allegations, employers must always take the time to reflect upon whether suspension is appropriate. 

“We do not know what information has been presented to the BBC or when it was presented, so we cannot be too hasty to condemn the BBC.   

“Suspension should never be a knee-jerk reaction to allegations of misconduct. Suspending an employee without proper cause may amount to a breach of trust and confidence that could entitle them to resign and bring a constructive unfair dismissal claim.

“Although it is often said that suspension is a neutral act that does not imply guilt, the potential repercussions of an employee being suspended without good cause are vast, especially if they are senior to the organisation or a well-known public figure.

“Damage to reputation in these circumstances can be impossible to repair.

“Employers must ensure they have reasonable and proper cause for a suspension which requires a highly fact-specific assessment.” 

Helen Watson, Partner and Head of Employment Law at Aaron & Partners, said:

“It is usual for an employee to be suspended where there are potential allegations of gross misconduct and/or where the employee needs some protection or an alleged victim requires protection and this falls into all categories. 

“Usually, the employee remains on full pay for the period of suspension, so there is no suggestion that any outcome is preconceived and so the employee is not put to a detriment during this period – which is usually a period of fact gathering to allow for a fair and thorough investigation into the allegations.

“The detriment to the employee of course comes because if innocent, there is immediately a presumption of guilt on the part of the wider workforce or public where someone is removed from office (even for this short period of time during suspension). It must be clear to many who the allegations are about so there is bound to be a lot of talk behind the scenes and the employer needs to ensure this doesn’t tarnish a fair internal investigation process, with opinions and preconceptions.

“This is someone’s career and reputation on the line, so a fair and impartial investigation is key. It is also key to protect the employer against any potential future claims from the employee in the event that their employment is brought to an end.

“During a period of suspension, it’s usual for an employee to have limited access (if any) to any IT, work colleagues and workplace, and can therefore be a period of upset, turmoil and loneliness. For this reason, any investigation must be carried out quickly, with time being of the essence. 

“The longer it is drawn out the more chance there is of the employee developing mental health issues and reaching a point where it is untenable for their return to the workplace, even if no evidence is found to substantiate allegations against them.  This would potentially give rise to the employee establishing a valid claim against the employer.

“So once the allegations are formalised and the suspension happens there is a great deal of work that goes on or needs to go on to protect the employer, employee and the alleged victim (or individual raising the allegations). 

“The employment law obligations and individual rights and the company’s obligations to the employee(s) of the duty of care perhaps largely all escapes the public domain. The need to try to reach fair findings on the evidence before a snowball effect occurs, anonymity falls away and potential claim(s) are brought where employment procedures are deemed flawed and careers are ruined.”

 

 

 

 

Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.