Office prank amounted to bullying and resulted in an award of nearly £10,000

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 was a deputy finance business partner for East Sussex Healthcare NHS and 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 Claimant found the email “extremely stressful” and proceeded to stop urgent work to write the presentation, 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 the line manger saying “Only joshing!!!! Have a great day.” 

The judge was told that this occurred at the end of the financial month end, which was a very busy period”, at a time when the claimant was also covering two roles for after a colleague had left the organisation. She had previously been signed off work with stress and was also responsible for training a new member of staff.

Around the same time as the practical joke, plans were being put in place to form a central finance team and the court heard that the transition to the new team was “difficult”, with the claimant’s team being unhappy about the changes and feeling that they hadn’t been consulted. By the beginning of November, the court heard, the claimant contacted her trade union to report problems with bullying at work. She asked for a one-to-one meeting with a senior manager and raised the email incident from August with her. 

However, from the following day, she felt that this meeting had been discussed with others and she started to feel excluded, for example when colleagues made drinks for the team, while shared spreadsheets that she had updated were tampered with and information deleted.

She was signed off sick and raised a formal grievance. It was investigated and found not to have constituted harassment. She appealed and then resigned when the appeal was unsuccessful.  During the time that the grievance was being investigated the claimant returned to work but found that items in her desk drawers had been moved and that an office folder had been deleted from a shared drive – all of which increased her feeling that she was being bullied.  She resigned her position.  While she was working her notice, her appeal was upheld and found that she had been humiliated and bullied. The manage who caused the practical joke was disciplined.

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.

This case serves a reminder to employers that they must make clear what amounts to acceptable conduct in the workplace from all staff, including management. 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.

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