Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues
Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues
Published: 7 February 2022
This case study should be read in conjuction with the guidance: Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues.
Note - these case studies are illustrative of some of the components in the cases that we see, provided to explain our decision making and potential outcomes. The studies are not formal records of actual cases.
Case Study 1 - complaint of bullying leading to closure at assessment stage
We received a report from a paralegal employed at a large law firm who said they felt bullied and undermined by the partner who supervised their work. Their complaints included concerns about feedback which they considered to be overly critical. They were questioned about the accuracy of their time recording in front of other team members and refused study leave to attend a course, whilst colleagues had been allowed to do this on other occasions.
The complainant said that these incidents had taken place over several years and they had kept a detailed log of the incidents, although they confirmed that they had not raised the issues with the partner or HR and that the firm had an anti-bullying policy in place. At the time the complaint was made to us, they had left the firm and started a claim in the Employment Tribunal for constructive dismissal, which was ongoing.
We considered the evidence provided to us by the complainant to ascertain if the incidents amounted to a breach of our requirements. We noted that the incidents primarily related to disputes over whether performance management had been done in a fair way.
We reviewed our records to see if there had been any other similar concerns expressed by the firm's staff and there were none that had been reported to us. On this basis we determined the issues complained of would not be serious enough to constitute a breach by the firm or the supervisor of our regulatory requirements and we closed the case at our assessment stage.
When explaining the reasons for our closure to the complainant, we explained that the fact of ongoing proceedings - or even a successful Employment Tribunal claim would not itself be sufficient reason to trigger a regulatory investigation. However, we did ask the complainant to let us know if the tribunal made any adverse findings about the partner's actions, or the firm's culture or procedures, so we could consider any new information arising from the proceedings.
Case Study 2 - complaint of bullying leading to investigation of firm - no further action required
A senior solicitor reported to us that they had been the subject of bullying by a number of partners at a firm. Examples given in support of their complaint were:
- Partner A: was described by them as a 'stroppy, bullying primary school teacher' and often 'uncommercial' in their dealing with client matters. Examples given in support of the complaint included:
- asking the complainant to explain the time they incurred on a client matter in a way that made them feel 'told off'
- 'slamming' a pad down on their desk and asking them to draw a simple diagram of a property transaction in front of colleagues which they felt belittled them
- favouring other colleagues' preferences for days to be spent in the office as part of the firm's Covid contingency plans.
- Partner B: had acted unreasonably when refusing them permission to invite a client to a social event hosted by the firm and had challenged them for minor infractions of the firm's car parking policy when other staff were not challenged for similar infractions.
- Partner C: told them that they had not approved of an article the complainant had written for publication on the firm's website about a client's approach to climate change issues.
The complainant was also unhappy at being passed over for a promotion and said that the firm had not helped them to progress. The solicitor said they had raised a grievance with the firm but did not feel it had been properly dealt with.
We noted that some of the incidents complained of related to challenges of the complainant's performance or adherence to firm policy, and the remainder would not by themselves be serious enough to pursue against the individuals concerned, applying our Enforcement Strategy.
However, we noted that multiple partners were said to have been involved, and the complainant said they had been deliberately targeted. The complainant also told us that their issues had been raised with the firm but they were not satisfied that they had been taken seriously. If the firm had failed to prevent either coordinated bullying or a culture of bullying by its managers, this could be serious enough for us to take regulatory action, so we decided to investigate.
We wrote to the firm who confirmed that the matter had been raised with them by the complainant and investigated thoroughly in accordance with its anti - bullying policy.
The firm were able to provide us with documented evidence of the investigation and the grievance procedure which was followed. We did not find evidence of a coordinated bullying campaign or a culture of bullying at the firm, and we satisfied that the matter had been dealt with reasonably and concluded that the firm had not breached our requirements.
We also reviewed our records to see if there had been any other similar concerns expressed by the firm's staff and there were none. We then closed our file after explaining our position to the complainant.
Case Study 3 - complaints leading to investigation and action against a firm
We received a number of complaints from the clients of a small, licensed body. The complaints were about a newly qualified litigation solicitor and their conduct of various personal injury claims. These complaints included that they:
- did not send client care letters or advise clients about the costs of their matters
- failed to issue claims within the correct limitation period
- failed to attend court to represent clients as arranged
Our onsite investigation found evidence in support of these concerns and that six clients had suffered serious detriment.
During our investigation we became concerned about the firm's lack of supervision arrangements and support of its junior solicitors and how it had consequently failed to protect clients' interests. This suggested that the firm's systems did not provide for adequate supervision of the workloads or competence of newly qualified solicitors.
We found that this newly qualified solicitor had been given an overwhelming number of cases to deal with and matters for which they did not have adequate experience. They consequently found that they were out of their depth and despite asking for help, were not given any support from the firm's two managers , which contributed to the failings on the client matters identified. There was evidence on client files that other staff were routinely given work which they were not competent to deal with. We also found that various staff had been ridiculed and ostracised when they had raised concerns and asked the firm's managers for support.
We spoke to other employees and looked at the firm's systems and processes. We found that the firm - in breach of Paragraph 4 of our Code of Conduct for firms - did not have adequate supervision arrangements in place for newly qualified staff and had failed to ensure that staff were competent to carry out the roles they were given.
As the firm was a licensed body, we were able to enter into a settlement agreement with the firm which involved payment by them of a significant financial penalty and the imposition of conditions on the firm's licence. The conditions involved actions to address the serious systems failures that we had identified.