Over the last few years, I have been asked to help many individuals who have found themselves the subject of potentially serious disciplinary proceedings. These individuals have usually been in senior positions or otherwise carrying out very responsible jobs. As members of a respected profession, the standards they are held to by their employers or in some cases their regulators, are extremely high and rightly so. However, this means that if their conduct is called into question for any reason and a formal process does not resolve in the way that they would wish, the results can be catastrophic. They may not only lose their job but could also find themselves struggling to continue in a career for which they may have trained and worked hard over many years. Their position in their community may even hinge on the credibility their occupation brings. In one recent case, the loss of a senior role could also have meant deportation to a less than friendly country for a client. So we know the stakes can be pretty high.
Sometimes situations will arise in an individual’s home life, or in relation to their health which will impact on their ability to discharge their responsibilities properly. They may be going through some major life event or struggling with mental health issues and as a consequence, their behaviour and judgement is impaired. I have also come across situations where the behaviour of a family member has led to a highly respected employee compromising the interests of their employer as a result of a misguided attempt to help that family member. In other cases, individuals simply become caught up in a situation over which they have little control, perhaps as a result of a spurious grievance or complaint or just through sheer bad luck. Whatever the cause, it is vital that they get the right help to ensure that when they participate in an investigation or come before a disciplinary panel, they are able to explain their position clearly and comprehensively. That panel needs to make a decision which is fully informed and to use a rather old-fashioned word, just.
An employee’s first port of call in this situation should be a trade union or professional association representative. In theory, that help is all that is needed. In the most serious situations, unions can also provide access to professional legal advice. However, the reality is representatives can sometimes be inexperienced, inadequately trained or just too overburdened with cases to give a member the time and energy that their case requires. In other cases, an individual may have just not thought it necessary to join the relevant association. Another common issue can be access to legal advice that requires time and bureaucracy to be satisfied before it is approved and that isn’t always quick enough for what can be a fast-moving and incredibly stressful situation. This is not to be critical of the support offered, it is merely acknowledging that resources are finite and have to be managed carefully on behalf of all the members who pay their dues each month. The very last thing you need when facing the stress of such a situation is not being completely confident of the support that you may or may not receive.
For those of us who have worked in this area we know that real value can be added to the strength of a case by either using us overtly to prepare that case or even just by working behind the scenes to discretely support the efforts of a representative. Of course it will seldom be appropriate or even permissible for a lawyer to represent an employee before a disciplinary panel although there are some notable exceptions. Yet it really is all about the preparation. Being honest, the mere presence of a lawyer in what is an internal meeting isn’t always helpful and can antagonise. However, by helping to prepare a detailed personal statement, gathering the right supporting evidence, even getting character references and posing the right questions we can quite literally, make all the difference. In addition to this, we can offer calm, objective and pragmatic advice about what you may be facing and how best to deal with it. We know what works, what doesn’t and how an employer will assess the situation they face because in other circumstances, we are behind the scenes advising employers just like them.
If you or someone you know is facing a challenging professional disciplinary situation, get in touch to discuss it in complete confidence.