Facing an investigation for bullying and harassment: Ask the expert

I have worked as an office co-ordinator since July 2008. I went on maternity leave in January 2010 and I am due to return to work at the end of October. Before I started my maternity leave I informed my employer that I would only be able to return part time due to child care arrangements to which he replied that we could sort that out at a later date. I called in to see my employer in July to discuss changing my hours. He said that he would have a “few things to juggle around” and then he casually threw into the conversation that there was an investigation he was dealing with regarding bullying and harrassment. At first he wasn’t prepared to tell me any more but I said that was not fair as the allegation was against me. He still wouldn’t really tell me anything so when I received my request for flexible working forms I enclosed a letter asking to discuss the issue further. My employer wrote back last week suggesting a meeting regarding flexible working and in a seperate letter he said that we could discuss the allegation informally on the same day, he also said that he had to look into matters as a ‘number of colleagues had approached him and made comments’. Amazingly he suggested that I ask a colleague to sit in on the meeting regarding flexible working but I don’t feel that I can trust anyone there now and I am dreading the thought of returning in October. Do I have a right to know who has said what about me or should I just try to ignore things as there has been no official complaint made verbally or in writing? I am wondering if my employer is trying to make it difficult to return in the hope that I will quit as he did say originally that my job was difficult to do on a part time basis.

There are obviously two separate issues here, but your employer seems to be mixing these up together in that he has suggested informally dealing with the bullying/harassment issue at the same time as the flexible working issue. If your employer is carrying out an investigation into bullying/harassment relating to you, then you would of course be entitled to be given the details of that investigation.

This should have been done prior to the start of the investigation, at least in the form of the allegations being made against you and what was being investigated. As an absolute minimum you should be provided with something in writing regarding the outcome of the investigation. It is really not sufficient for your employer to say that you are going to discuss this informally whilst you are trying to discuss your request for flexible working, when you do not even know what it is about. I suggest that you send an email immediately to your employer asking for clarification as to what the investigation was about, to provide any documentation to you including witness statements (if any) whether anonymised or not and whether that investigation had been completed.

You should also ask for confirmation as to whether the intention is to take matters any further with you (such as disciplinary action) since it is causing you understandable anxiety. You should also say that you do not think that it is appropriate to discuss these matters in the context of a flexible working meeting and that this should form part of a separate investigatory meeting. You should say that if the allegations relate to you, you have a right to be asked for your input on the matter as part of the investigation. If the employer in response simply says that there were just some concerns and he is not intending to take it any further, you can still insist upon him giving you details of the complaints even if he is not prepared to give names of those who expressed concerns. If he insists upon speaking about this at the same time as the flexible working meeting, then you should say to him when you are face to face that this should be dealt with separately and you are shocked that he simply sprung this upon you when you spoke to him about flexible working.

You are concerned that if you had not mentioned flexible working you may not have known about the “investigation” until your return. I am also concerned that the employer may be using this as an excuse to turn down your flexible working request, but it is not possible to say this with any certainty on the facts which I have currently. Even if there is a disciplinary issue in relation to you, this is not one of the eight reasons to justify turning down a flexible working request. If you are turned down for flexible working, I would scrutinize the reasoning very carefully. It may be appropriate to appeal on the grounds that the reason given was not the genuine reason for turning it down.

Although it is difficult, the main focus of the meeting should be your flexible working request. You therefore need to be fully prepared with your justification for needing flexible working. That is not just in terms of your child care arrangements, but also why you consider that a flexible working arrangement will work with the position of office co-ordinator. You already know that your employer is going to be hostile to any request you would make, so try to make sure that your request is as realistic and practical as possible.

If your employer is obstructive to your requests, then it may be necessary to raise a grievance about the whole issue. If you find that it is impossible to return due to lack of information or the attitude of your employer, you may be forced to resign and claim constructive dismissal and to couple this with a sex discrimination claim if appropriate (I do not have enough facts at present), but in your current circumstances when you are just returning from maternity leave, it is clearly undesirable to be on the job market at this stage. I would therefore discourage this form of action and reserve it as a last resort.

Whilst every care has been taken in compiling this answer, WorkingMums cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions. This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific legal advice.

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