Under what circumstances is it ok for HR to go the full Morse on an anonymous letter and how do you ensure clumsy attempts to identify the culprit don’t come over all Inspector Clouseau
Recently an NHS Trust was in the news for the lengths it had gone to identify the author of an anonymous letter. These included engaging a finger print and hand writing expert. The controversy arose over the fact that the letter exposed mistakes that the hospital had made in the care of a patient who had subsequently died. The author was therefore a whistle blower and as such was supposed to have some protection not be hunted down. The determination of the Trust to identify the whistleblower led to accusations of a bullying culture confirmed in many people view when staff were pressurised into proving samples of hand writing. Needless to say the Trust’s motives and the focus on identifying the author of the letter rather than the serious allegations within it made the organisation look defensive and oppressive.
In a example from my own experience an anonymous letter sent to a member of staff by a colleague. The letter was brought to the attention of senior management and HR because of it’s offensive and racist content. The person of colour receiving the letter through the internal mail was abused because they had raised a recruitment complaint against a popular manager. The author disparaged the individual both professionally and personally finishing by saying if they didn’t like working here they should do everyone a favour and leave.
HR engaged a fingered print and hand writing expert in an attempt to identify the culprit with the intention of taking disciplinary action. It was possible to identify which office the document had originated from but as it had gone through the internal post there were numerous smudged prints on the envelope and similarly on the letter as it had been handled by many people in the process of being drawn to the attention of management and HR. The letter was typed and we were advised that it was not possible to identify the machine. If the letter had been hand written I would have approached the trade union to get their cooperation for obtaining copies of handwriting from every member of staff from that office. And I believe I would have got it because unlike the NHS Trust senior management and HR motives were to support staff not to victimise them.
Taking the finger prints of staff or subjecting samples of their hand writing to analysis is not necessarily invasive or oppressive it depends on the circumstances and motives of management.
Unfortunately in this case there was no satisfactory conclusion. The failure to identify the author of the abusive and racist letter and thus take any disciplinary action coupled with the original frustration with the recruitment process left the individual dissatisfied and hurt. They left the organisation.
Blair Mcpherson former Director , author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk