I suppose working life could be worse. The day is long and the role demanding, the pressure often considerable and your weekends not guaranteed to be your own. But at least I don’t work for the UK Border Agency http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/. The subject of much public ridicule, alleged political and operational meddling by the Home Secretary and now (according to Wednesday’s London Evening Standard http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/) a report by the Government’s Home Affairs Committee to the effect that it is unable to fulfil even its most basic functions. The report notes, among other equally depressing statistics, that 120,000 immigration cases are being written off because the applicants have been, well, lost. Sorry, and all that.
Turning up to work in the face of a Government report that your employer is failing in its most basic functions and of routinely hostile Press coverage (even from those journalists not obliged to queue for two hours at Heathrow on their return from half-term holidays) must really eat away at the spirit. Why bother, you must think. All this pressure, no resource and pilloried in the press for my trouble.
The vast majority of UKBA employees must be wholly blameless in this state of affairs, but from time to time they must still dread telling people what they do. Even looking for a position elsewhere may be made harder for them if they are tainted by association with an employer so constantly and comprehensively battered in the Press and public opinion. Surely as employer the UKBA is obliged to protect them from that?
Yes and no, but mostly no. The decided cases do seem to suggest an implied duty on the part of an employer to provide an employee with the support and resources reasonably required for him to do his job, but only to the level acceptable to the employer. If the UKBA is content, using the phrase loosely, with its current level of output then it is not open to any of its employees to claim constructive dismissal because given more resources the Agency’s service or their individual performance could be better and/or free from public criticism. Similarly, the duty to look after employees’ mental health extends only to taking reasonable steps to counter foreseeable risks. While it is not unlikely that seeing your employer criticised on such a persistent and public scale could get you down or make you angry or embarrassed, it is probable that a Court would not extrapolate that so far as actual illness.
In 1997 the House of Lords http://www.parliament.uk/lords accepted that an employee could recover “stigma damages” if his reputation and/or re-employment prospects have been tarnished through association with his employer. But that was in relation to the collapse of BCCI, brought down by widespread internal corruption, and not even the Daily Mail is yet accusing the UKBA of that. One of their Lordships pre-emptively squashed the hopes of employees everywhere by a clear statement that while there may be many circumstances in which an employee’s reputation may suffer from association with an unsuccessful business or department, even gross incompetence on management’s part will not get him as far as a breach of contract or constructive dismissal claim.
So the advice to employees of any business wilting in the glare of public scorn is to stick in there. Soon it will be someone else’s turn, as grateful employees of the Child Support Agency or Crown Prosecution Service would no doubt attest. In addition, just remember that corporate failings are temporary, unlike the more or less permanent resentment which the public holds for bankers, lawyers, estate agents and insurance salesmen just because of the job they do.