Taking responsibility for ‘rogue’ employee’s actions

First published in Business: Law

THIS whole Jimmy Savile affair is disturbing on a number of levels, writes Robert Gibson, managing partner and head of employment law at Samuel Phillips Law Firm.

Obviously the fact that there are so many victims, who were unable to be heard until now, is truly awful.

The fact that the individuals know now that they are not alone will offer some comfort, but will it be enough? I suspect not.

The scale of his alleged actions have left many concerned of further allegations that employers knew of his tendencies but turned a blind eye.

Who takes responsibility for the actions of a rogue employee, someone who can appear “normal”, yet attract a significant level of gossip and hearsay on the unofficial grapevine?

The clear answer is the employer, but what can they do about speculative comment?

You cannot sack someone for being the subject of office tittle-tattle, but when do you take steps to investigate, and how can you reduce the risks that their behaviour may bring to the organisation?

The BBC is front and centre in this scandal, now joined by the Department of Health with hospitals such as Broadmoor.

Radio 1 boss Derek Chinnery, who worked at the station as controller from 1978 to 1985, has admitted that he questioned Savile over the allegations 20 years ago.

Speaking recently on Radio 4, he admitted that the response to his question on the rumours surrounding the presenter was a robust denial, and that was that.

But should the employer have gone further? What exchange of information took place between concurrent employers?

Workplace legislation has moved a long way since the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but we still need to guard against a working environment and culture that endorses, or turns a blind eye to, inappropriate behaviour.

No matter how influential or senior an individual may be they should not be able to manipulate those around them to protect abusive and damaging actions. Senior management has to set an example and take a lead.

As a society we need to learn from such matters and provide an effective co-ordinated response.

The law needs to accommodate a regulated and honest exchange of information between organisations to reduce the opportunity of repeat offences by the same individual in different organisations.

The Metropolitan Police, working with 14 additional forces in the UK, are now pursuing 340 lines of inquiry with more than 60 victims on record at Scotland Yard.

Some must have come forward previously but, as isolated cases, been ignored.

The victims will now naturally look for a form of closure and that, for many, will be through the courts.

The focus will be on those who continued to provide unchecked access to vulnerable young people despite rumour and allegation about Savile’s behaviour.

The burden of inquiry will be around the issue of the available information, steps taken to investigate and safeguards.

In the workplace we owe a duty of care to our staff, but we also need to ensure that they are fit and proper persons for their role, and that they, in turn, do not harm others through the course of their employment.

Having a policy in place is one thing, a conversation with someone who is the subject of speculation is another, but failing to act and follow through thoroughly could be considered negligent.

As the story unfolds the BBC and others will have a very uncomfortable time. But for all employers it’s a salutary lesson in how we need to remain vigilant and tackle matters in a way that is timely, proportionate, fair but ultimately thorough and identify the true scope of the risk.

I do believe that there is a point to raise on the role of the employer in such matters and that if it is possible to draw a positive lesson out of such a story, we can look to our own management and consider how we would need to react under similar circumstances.

Rather than just be relieved “it’s them and not us” handling the pressure, employers should ensure they have the measures in place to deal swiftly and effectively with any similar high-risk case.

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