Health and employment

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009 - career transition, health, Job Application, politics, recruitment, sacked, tutorial


Health, Disclosure and Employment

Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Elizabeth Mitchell addresses the Health Committee
Creative Commons License photo credit: niassembly

The lessons for all from the case of Cheltenham Borough Council v Christine Laird, which reached a conclusion in London’s High Court yesterday, are now plain and open for all to see.

The conclusion of the judge was that the recruitment procedure was poor, questions in forms poorly worded, and that it would be in the interests of both parties to move on with their lives.

Cheltenham Council and Christine Laird

In background, in January 2009, when Cheltenham Borough Council sued its ex-Managing Director Christine Laird, 50, for £750,000, on the grounds that she “misrepresented and misstated” her fitness for employment on an application form. The case against Mrs Laird, scheduled to last 38 days, began on January 26, 2009.

Mrs Laird was appointed chief executive on a salary of £75,000 in January 2002. During her 18month in office, she:

  • Filed 25 official complaints against Andrew McKinlay, the council leader, but only one was upheld. Mrs Laird then pursued a legal claim against him but lost and was ordered to pay £96,100 in costs
  • Spent 18 of the 36 months that she was employed, off work suffering from stress
  • Suspended on full pay in June 2004 for undisclosed reasons, her employment with the council was terminated in August 2005

The initial High Court hearing in Cheltenham failed to reach conclusion, and in light of its ramifications was referred to the High Court in London. It emerged during the initial hearing that Laird claimed the appointment was “unconditional” as there was no mention of a medical report being required – a failure accepted in the HR procedures of Cheltenham Council.

On June 15th, 2009, the action was dismissed by Mr Justice Hamblen, who at the same time rejected a counter-claim for damages by Mrs Laird to reflect the value of the work she did for the council during her tenure. The judge added as a postscript:

“It is over eight years since Mrs Laird joined the council and much of the intervening period has been spent in bitter dispute before various tribunals, at much personal and financial cost. I very much hope that a line can now finally be drawn, allowing Mrs Laird to get on with her life and the council to get on with the business of governing Cheltenham.”

Best Practise Recruitment

There are lessons for all involved in recruitment, employment and HR professionals:

  • Job Applicants: I have always said, if you have something in your history which could be revealed in your job application – employment related or personal, particularly anything medical in the previous 12months – ask your doctor before applying for any job that you are fit and capable of fulfilling the required duties. This applies to both physical as well as mental health conditions. If you then choose to apply, you have a choice as to whether to disclose your previous condition should the application form not be clear, but if you do disclose then the employer can not use that as a reason for exclusion
  • Employers and Recruiters: there are two strategy choices from the outcome of the Laird case: you must review, but do you tighten up procedures and hence increase the cost of recruitment? All employers and recruiters should review their job application procedure to ensure that questions posed to candidates are both legal, relevant and provide a scooped risk for that level of position. In some jobs, medicals are compulsory through Government legislation – health, driving, etc. But even if a medical had been required of Laird, the judge accepted that the sequence of job offer/job acceptance meant that the offer was unconditional. Additionally, even if a medical found an existing pre-condition such as that which Laird suffered, that could not be a reason for exclusion unless the medical report disagreed with her job application answer. I think personally a fair conclusion of the correct recruitment procedure for Laird would have been that although the pre-existing condition did not specifically exclude her, the potential pressures required of the task could have resulted in a re-occurrence. Hence, if Cheltenham concluded to proceed with the recruitment, they could have either put in place additional support/monitoring procedures, or offered a position reporting to the Chief Executive.
  • Government, Legislators, Support groups: I think its pretty clear there is a need for a change in legislation. Presently, the 15% of the UK population which has suffered from a mental health condition is now thinking: dammed if I do disclose, dammed if I don’t! There needs to be far better guidance for employers, and far more support of the Employers’ Forum on Disability

Suggested Reading:
If you are looking for more information on this subject, as a job applicant or employer, you might like to read the following resources:

  • Employers’ Forum on Disability – the Employers Forum on Disability is a government sponsored group for employers, recruiters, support groups and professionals involved in disability issues, in which to discuss best practise initiatives. The forum also provides support training
  • Mindful Employer – a charter initiative launched in 2004, with employers supporting and employing people who have suffered from mental health issues. Their resources page provides lots of good employment information, and covers health issues
  • Direct.gov.uk – the UK Governments own website guide on employment

Good Luck!

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