NHS worker subjected to ‘stressful’ practical joke by manager was unfairly dismissed, tribunal finds

Judge rules there was ‘no possible justification’ for boss’s actions after claimant was tricked into thinking she had to give a presentation the following day

An NHS worker “ostracised” by her team and subjected to an “extremely stressful” prank has been awarded almost £10,000 by an employment tribunal for bullying and harassment.

Carol Hurley, who worked as deputy finance business partner for East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust from October 2016 until her resignation in September 2018, was sent fake emails by her line manager, who pretended that Hurley had to give a presentation the next day as a practical joke, the tribunal heard.

The Croydon employment tribunal heard that at 11.25am on 3 August 2017, Hurley received an email from her manager Stella Armstrong to “remind” her of a three-hour presentation she had to deliver to the senior management team the following day, faking an additional email purportedly sent from a general manager to corroborate the story and convincing her “she must have forgotten”. Other people in the office were in on the joke.

Hurley told the tribunal she initially did not believe it but began to doubt herself, reportedly finding it “extremely stressful” before putting aside her already urgent work to write the presentation, and leaving work at 4pm to go home and carry on, expecting to be working into the early hours. Half an hour later she received another email from Armstrong saying “Only joshing!!!! Have a great day.” 

Employment judge Fowell emphasised that “it was coming up to the financial month end, a very busy period” and that Hurley was “stressed”, having been covering two roles for six months after a colleague left the organisation. She has previously been signed off work with stress on 30 March of the same year, returning in June, and was also responsible for training a new member of staff.

Fowell also noted Hurley would’ve been entitled at that point to resign, but did not, feeling the need to “take the joke in good part”, but that there was “no possible justification for doing that to a member of staff in any circumstances”.

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Around the same time as the practical joke, plans were being put in place to form a central finance team, of which Hurley became a part in October 2017. However, the court heard that the transition to the new team was “difficult”, with Hurley’s team unhappy about the changes and feeling that they hadn’t been consulted. By the beginning of November, the court heard, she had contacted her trade union to report problems with bullying at work. 

On 10 November, Hurley had a one-to-one meeting with the new central department’s manager, Alex Graham, and raised the email incident from August with her. 

From the following day, the tribunal heard, she felt word of the meeting had got out. She began to be excluded, for example when colleagues made drinks for the team, while shared spreadsheets that she had updated were tampered with and information deleted, which Fowell noted as “a particularly disturbing form of revenge or sabotage”.

On 8 January 2018 Hurley took her concerns to HR, which led to Graham agreeing to put together an action plan of support and to share the trust’s behavioural framework with the staff in order to remind them of expected standards. However, on 1 February, Hurley’s union representative informed HR that the environment had not improved, and that members of staff were creating “further obstruction” in Hurley’s performance of her role.

The same day, Hurley had her first meeting with Armstrong, but did not receive the notes from this meeting until a month later, on 6 March. Hurley felt the notes from the meeting didn’t reflect the conversation that had taken place, and that she was being criticised for being “overwhelmed by the workload”.

Hurley was signed off sick for a second time on 19 March and began formulating a formal grievance, which was submitted on 30 April, including a new allegation around Armstrong’s forwarding of an email containing the appraisal meeting notes which had apparently been sent a month earlier on 6 February, which Hurley denied was the case. The tribunal said the ensuing investigation was a “thorough and extensive exercise”.

But when Hurley returned to work on 4 June she found that the contents of her desk drawers had been removed, including useful notes from her training. No one owned up to this, which was “unsettling” for her, and on her third day in the office a folder she created mysteriously disappeared from the shared drive.

She received the investigation report on 10 August which found the prank did not constitute harassment. Hurley appealed four days later. Between 23 and 29 August she was on annual leave and on 14 September she resigned. She then received a job offer with her former employer, Sussex Police.

While Hurley was working her notice, the grievance review following her appeal was finalised. It upheld claims of humiliation and bullying from the practical joke incident, as well as two others around inadequate training and Armstrong’s falsifying of emails, for which she was disciplined. Hurley left the trust on 9 November 2018 and began working at Sussex Police on 12 November.

Hurley was awarded £9,890.60 for previous and future loss of earnings, taking into account the fact that she had started another job right away, albeit with a lower salary and with higher commuting costs.

A trust spokesperson told People Management: “We fully accept the findings of this tribunal and wholeheartedly apologise to Mrs Hurley who we hope understands that we made a conscientious effort to support her, as the judge stated.

“We continue to review our workforce practices so all our staff conduct themselves in a way that upholds our values.”

Kate Palmer, HR advice director at Peninsula, said the circumstances of the case were “shocking to read” and sent a clear reminder to employers that they must make clear what amounts to acceptable conduct in the workplace from all staff, including management. 

She said: “Any complaints of bullying must be taken seriously and responded to. If an employee is subject to further bullying as a result of their complaint, this must also be dealt with accordingly. As seen here, failure in this regard can result in costly constructive dismissal claims that could, otherwise, be avoidable.”