In a startling case which exposed bitter strife at managerial level within an NHS trust, a senior employee who was sworn at and threatened by a colleague has nevertheless failed to convince a judge that she was bullied and harassed into a mental breakdown.
The woman, who was the trust’s Associate Director of Human Resources, claimed that she was persecuted beyond endurance by the ‘high-flyer’ colleague, who had been brought in as a consultant to review the trust’s operations as NHS funding cuts were beginning to bite and who was subsequently appointed over her head.
In seeking substantial damages from the trust, she alleged that not enough had been done to protect her and that her treatment had caused ‘lasting psychiatric injury’, which ultimately led to the termination of her employment contract.
The judge accepted that her colleague had sworn at her during a stormy meeting and had ‘wholly improperly’ threatened her that she could use her influence to damage her career. The threat had left her with a ‘burning sense of grievance’ and caused her ‘real distress and well-founded anxiety’.
However, in dismissing the woman’s claim, the judge found that the one-off incident ‘should not be taken out of proportion’. Although she had not been treated with the respect she deserved, he rejected claims that she had been ‘physically intimidated’ or ‘falsely imprisoned’ during the meeting.
Although her colleague was guilty of ‘significant misconduct’, that was a momentary lapse and, within minutes, the two women had been working normally again. The trust’s senior management had also ‘acted with exemplary speed and resolve’ by immediately terminating her colleague’s appointment.
The judge concluded that the colleague’s behaviour at the meeting was not a ‘course of conduct’ which could amount to harassment or bullying. Her behaviour had also not ’caused or materially contributed’ to the woman’s psychiatric injuries and such an outcome would not, in any event, have been ‘reasonably foreseeable’ by the trust.