back to article Ex-staffer of UK.gov dept bags payout after boss blabbed medical info to colleagues

A Manchester man has won his case against former employer the Department for Work and Pensions, after a superior shared “highly private” medical information with his colleagues. Aftab Marchant, who worked in the DWP’s Stockport office, has reportedly received a substantial payout in the case – for which he was claiming damages …

  1. Mike Brown

    Comment

    "The DWP said that it didn’t comment on individual cases"

    I think this case has proven that to be false.....

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What?

    "and given the manager an informal warning."

    WTF?

    Nothing more than a "don't do it again".

    I'd expect a written warning at the very least, if not dismissal for gross misconduct.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What?

      They did on dress down Friday as well just to make it that little bit more informal.

      I'm with you on that, written at the least. How can people be expected to follow the rules if there are not suitable punishments for wrong doing?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What?

      Likewise. Assuming this manager had had the appropriate managerial training (and this being the civil service, he *will* have had it), he has absolutely no excuse for sharing confidential medical details with other staff. I would expect nothing less than a final written warning to be issued in this scenario. It is hard to imagine a more fundamental breach of a manager's duty of care.

      1. RedCardinal

        Re: What?

        You can't have a "final written warning" if you haven't first had a written warning :)

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          Re: What?

          What tosh, of course you can - "First and final warning".

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What?

      Do managers ever get sacked for gross misconduct? Or is that only for the underlings?

    4. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Re: What?

      My interpretation is that this is standard procedure, so they couldn't take disciplinary action against the manager for fear of being back in court.

  3. Steve Button

    When asked for comment.

    The DUP said "I don't see what all the fuss is about. It's only chlamydia for heavens sake and can be easily cleared up with a course of antibiotics. ... oh wait, hang on. Are we on the record here?"

    1. Teiwaz Silver badge

      Re: When asked for comment.

      The DUP said "I don't see what all the fuss is about. It's only chlamydia for heavens sake and can be easily cleared up with a course of antibiotics. ... oh wait, hang on. Are we on the record here?"

      The DUP said that?

      I Must be in the wrong universe again...usually it's something about 'immoral' whatnots with them, fearless fighters as they are, of the stubborn rearguard action against common sense and the obvious.

    2. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: When asked for comment.

      Aren't the DUP the ones that believe chlamydia and similar illnesses are a punishment from God for immorality?

  4. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    Um.

    If he didn't want the details of his illness spread around, why tell the boss?

    The only reason I can think of is that the illness might impact his work in some way, and so his boss needed to know.

    Why did his boss tell other woirkers?

    The only reason I can think of is that he felt that warning people about the issue would be a way to minimise the impact on the workplace... which seems reasonable...

    But it's presented as a situation where the boss was negligent or didn't care. I wonder which one it was. It would have been better journalism to have addressed that question....

    1. AndyS

      But it's presented as a situation where the boss was negligent or didn't care. I wonder which one it was. It would have been better journalism to have addressed that question....

      Let's recap:

      1. Man has illness, feels need to tell his boss, asks for strict confidentiality.

      2. Boss blabs about it to 11 people while man is on holiday.

      3. Employer apologises, pays compensation, reprimands manager.

      Do you really need it spelled out?

      Here it is then. The manager didn't need to tell all those people.

    2. R69

      theres no context here...were these 10 immediate colleagues who had significant contact with this person and therefore needed to know so that they didnt exacerbate things when he got back to work (meh, seems fair) or was the email poking fun at him (un-good)?

      i think trial by media has had its day now - can we go back to balanced fact based reporting please?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "meh, seems fair"

        This isn't fair. Beyond a notification of absence there is absolutely no requirement to share sensitive medical details to colleagues. They should be shared exclusively with limited audiences of HR type folks (e.g. your HR business partner and occupational health) on a strictly need-to-know basis. Anything else is both illegal and highly unprofessional.

      2. AndyS

        > theres no context here

        Yes there is. The apology, admission of guilt, and large settlement payment is the context.

        The other context is the difference between "Bob has been off on a period of sick, and will begin a phased return next week" and "Bob has been suffering severe incontinence, but is improving with treatment, so please don't make him feel uncomfortable on his return next week."

        The first gives everyone everything they need to know, and is a reasonably regular type of communication in any large company. The second may be well meaning, but is illegal, unethical, and leads to large settlements.

      3. qwertyuiop

        Even if these 11 people (...the superior sent an email about it to a colleague, with 10 others copied in...) were immediate colleagues they didn't need to know the detail. At most the manager simply need to say "As you know, Aftab has had some time off because he was ill. He'll be back at work on Monday so when he comes in let's cut him some slack while he adjusts to being back at work."

        If anybody asked what was wrong with him it was only necessary to say "I'm sure you appreciate that I can't share that with you."

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        balanced fact based reporting please

        @R69

        I'm not sure what you are getting at with that,

        "High Court proceedings against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and they have now agreed an out of court settlement"

        If what he said did not happen or their wasn't evidence I would expect the DWP to fight it, there was, they didn't, clearly guilty of wrong doing. There is no trial be media when the courts have been involved or were going to be involved.

        All the things you mention about context don't matter, his boss was told it was confidential and he told others, that's that.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: balanced fact based reporting please

          eMail. Written evidence. Even if the person HAD asked that their colleagues be informed about the nature of their illness, and then done an about face, as a manager they should have insisted on a WRITTEN confirmation of the non-confidentiality, otherwise it is by default a confidential matter.

        2. Lee D Silver badge

          Re: balanced fact based reporting please

          I might tell my immediate boss more than "I'm ill" in order to prove I've not just had a day off to go to a theme park, that I'm not dying of cancer that he might need to know about, or so that they can judge quite how long I might be off. Otherwise, literally, people will phone up, say "I'm ill" and get themselves whatever the maximum amount of time off they can have for being ill with no recourse whatsoever.

          "Hey, Fred, I'm not going to be in, I've got the two-bob-bits" is perfectly fine. But there's no need for anyone else (possible exception of HR/medical) to know, and certainly not blab about via email of all things. "John's not in today" is perfectly sufficient.

          To be honest, sometimes I don't even see the need for the employer to know... "I'm having an operation" is perfectly acceptable. You don't need to know if that's a vasectomy, a circumcision, a hysterectomy or anything else unless that person chooses to tell you. But you certainly shouldn't be advertising whatever it is (even if the person in question is doing so themselves).

          If nothing else, the employer has a duty of care to spot if, say, John has been off with stress, depression, serious related illnesses, etc. a lot over time. So it's often good to tell them what the reason is and they are entitled to ask even if they don't get an answer. But Bob in the office who works with him doesn't need to know any of that. At all.

          HR really is one of those things where you have to be REALLY careful with this, and always have had to be.

          It's just incredibly ironic that it's the DWP at fault here... Guess who's supposed to come down on you like a ton of bricks / follow up complaints if you did this in your own workplace...

          1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

            Re: balanced fact based reporting please

            To be honest, sometimes I don't even see the need for the employer to know... "I'm having an operation" is perfectly acceptable. You don't need to know if that's a vasectomy, a circumcision, a hysterectomy or anything else unless that person chooses to tell you. But you certainly shouldn't be advertising whatever it is (even if the person in question is doing so themselves).

            Many employers only give sick leave for illness, and using it for elective vasectomy, circumcision, or hysterectomy would be gross misconduct.

            1. tiggity Silver badge

              Re: balanced fact based reporting please

              @ Ian Johnston

              "Many employers only give sick leave for illness, and using it for elective vasectomy, circumcision, or hysterectomy would be gross misconduct."

              There are medically necessary reasons for all those ops.

              e.g. vasectomy - 2 partners have genetic predisposition to an illness that would mean stillbirth / best case child lives a few agonsing months / years then dies. To avoid the mental health issues of that then a vasectomy makes sense (lower risk op than female sterilization, potentially reversible)

              Circumcision - various nasty infections can necessitate this late in life

              Hysterectomy is about the only option for women with severely debilitating endometriosis.

              1. TRT Silver badge

                Re: balanced fact based reporting please

                So there are reasons to discuss. I know I checked with my boss about sick leave and elective surgery. He said fine to have it off during holidays and it would be sick leave. In term time and it would be taken off my allowance for being an arse about it because I ought to know that non-teaching time is the only time we're supposed to block book leave.

      5. anothercynic Silver badge

        @R69

        There is sharing "So and so is currently on leave because of an illness, and when they come back, please be sensitive about any short-notice absences they may need to take because of it" and there is "so and so is currently on leave because of <insert name of illness here> and is suffering of <insert long list of side effects etc>, so when they come back, please be sensitive about any short-notice absences they may need to take because of <insert list of particularly embarrassing side effects>".

        I'm sure the latter does not apply, but I *have* seen employers (managers et al) making more of a fuss about things than using common sense.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Um.

      If he didn't want the details of his illness spread around, why tell the boss?

      I've known of an organisation where the boss opened and read the "medical history" forms you have to complete and shared some "juicy" details as gossip.

      Anonymous because legal reasons. (i.e. I like not being sued.)

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not much of a punishment, given they'll just increase our taxes/decrease benefits to cover their shortfall caused by the payment...

    This is why there's no point in fining government departments for misconduct - it's not their money they have to pay out with.

  6. Crisp Silver badge

    Ah the DWP

    Those same people that are trying to use debt collection agencies to recover Universal Credit payments from Job Seekers that have managed to find work.

  7. Bob Vistakin
    Facepalm

    You don't get sacked from the DWP

    It's an open secret everyone there is because they are the literal dregs of the jobs market, the living dead for whom the slightest glimmer of hope is daily and systematically drummed out of them before they get any ideas.

    I remember having to prove to my manager that my pen was truly out of ink before he would issue a replacement from the stationary cupboard. I remember having to return wall clocks to their previous, and wrong, position having helpfully moved them on a Monday after they went forward/backwards, only to be told "that's an electricians job, do you want to cause a strike"? Sure enough, an hour later said robot plodded in to do the essentials. I remember a "desktop ergonomics consultant" coming round to everyone to tell them where the best place to put their coffee mat, ruler, pen and paper was on their desks.

    People *have* to work there, but since it's a given the jobs and people are the last desperate scraps before the dole there's no point getting rid of any once in. You only get more of the same by way of replacement.

  8. J J Carter Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Needs saying!

    To be fair, the manager just didn't want peeps complaining to building services that the drains were blocked and ponging

  9. Evil Scot

    DWP treats disabled with lack of decency,

    Is that actually news?

    Don't they have targets for disability deaths to hit?

  10. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    I'm in no way defending the guilty here, but....

    I understand that the main principle here is that the employee shared medical info with their manager with the request that it not be shared further. On the face of it this makes sense, but should we stop and think about what the medical condition was and why the employee felt the need to keep it confidential?

    Disclaimer: I only know what I have read in this article, so there may be more detail which renders what I am about to say bunk, but here goes...

    If someone was off sick for a while with something like flu, I don't suppose they'd have many reservations about colleagues knowing that they've been suffering from, and maybe a warning that they might be doing short days because they still feel a bit off-colour.

    If someone was off sick for something much more personally sensitive, I can understand that they wouldn't want details broadcast like "***** is coming back after suffering from an STD - he'll likely be taking frequent breaks away from his desk so he can go to the toilets to apply the ointment to his gentleman's area"

    What I'm wondering is why a mental ailment falls into the second category? There are campaigns on the go about how we need to be more open in talking about peoples' mental health, and removing the stigma from things like depression.

    Is there a secondary issue as to whether the workplace culture in this case was such that the employee felt that they needed to be more secretive?

    1. tfewster Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: I'm in no way defending the guilty here, but....

      Mental health issues are stigmatised. The campaigns are improving awareness, but most sufferers are still uncomfortable with revealing "weakness", even in confidentiality.

      And as the employee said:

      > The former staffer told the MEN that he had depression and was “very paranoid” about being a subject of workplace gossip

      Personally, I suffer from depression & stress but can handle it most of the time. I've told my boss, HR and trusted colleagues, not so I get special treatment, but so they understand.

      I was comfortable doing that because I'm fairly comfortable with who I am, and don't give a shit about my career or other peoples opinions. In fact, the responses were very supportive - though they still cause me stress!

    2. Keith Langmead

      Re: I'm in no way defending the guilty here, but....

      "What I'm wondering is why a mental ailment falls into the second category? There are campaigns on the go about how we need to be more open in talking about peoples' mental health, and removing the stigma from things like depression.

      Is there a secondary issue as to whether the workplace culture in this case was such that the employee felt that they needed to be more secretive?"

      Because the employer doesn't get to decide which category it fits into, the employee does. There are indeed loads of campaigns to remove the stigma of mental illness, and crap like this only sets those campaigns back. If you've plucked up the courage to open up to your boss and tell them something in confidence, and they then break that confidence by telling others what message does that send? Will that person open up and seek help in future? Will anyone else in that department with mental health issues feel comfortable speaking to anyone? No!

      Even if (and it's a big if) there was a legitimate reason for the line manager to tell those other people, it should only have been after they'd informed the employee that they were going to do so. If you've promised the employee that you'll keep what they've told you in confidence, then you should tell them if that's not the case as well as who you need to inform and why they need to know.

      1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

        Re: I'm in no way defending the guilty here, but....

        Because the employer doesn't get to decide which category it fits into, the employee does.

        That was my point. I'm not saying the employer had any right to make the decision that they did. My point is that if the employee feels the need to be secretive about it, then it suggests that the culture there is at odds with what the mental health campaigners are aiming for.

    3. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: I'm in no way defending the guilty here, but....

      The manager might need to know what the condition is properly plan for staffing and absences. The problem is telling those who do not need to know. Also, even routine procedures like cataract surgery have a recovery period where person might need more breaks.

  11. adam payne Silver badge

    According to the Manchester Evening News, the department has paid out in the case, and given the manager an informal warning.

    This manager thought it was a good idea or even funny to disclose information about someone to people he had no right disclosing the information to.

    Gross misconduct surely? Out the door please.

  12. John Watts

    So he was awarded piles of cash?

  13. Wolfclaw Silver badge

    DWP paid, so in relaity, the tax payer. Should have made the manager cash in his gold pensin pot to pay for it and then sack him, saving his wages !

  14. Mark 85 Silver badge

    BS Warning..

    "We take the welfare of our staff and the security of all personal data extremely seriously."

    It seems that everytime a company/government agency, et al, makes this canned statement the smell of BS becomes overpowering. We all know it's eyewash for the masses and that it doesn't (for most) mean anything to them either.

    I'm a firm believer that PR staff should also be stood up against the wall......

    1. rskurat

      Re: BS Warning..

      precisely: "we take this 'seriously' but he gets a slap on the wrist, nothing to see here" Why don't they just tweet a sad face emoji and save the electrons? In Larry Niven's Inferno PR people are in the Liar's Ring where the sinners' mouths have been replaced with ars**oles so every time the speak they spray shit. Sounds like an apt eternity.

      Termination probably would be too strong, but a write-up about policy AS WELL AS a serious lapse of judgment is in order. I don't care if "we're all friends here" this is a workplace.

  15. DiViDeD Silver badge

    The DWP said

    "We take the welfare of our staff and the security of all personal data extremely seriously." .. .. .. every time we get caught out.

  16. JassMan Silver badge

    This shows the danger of using MS Exchange

    If BCC had worked as everyone expects it to work instead of telling all recipients the names of everyone else in the list, no one except the manager would have known how many people were told.

    Not that that makes what the manager did in any way excusable, but at least the taxpayer would have been paying less for his stupidity.

  17. The Nazz Silver badge

    Exaggerating slightly but ....

    "Hey boss, just to let you know i've been struck down with Ebola, i'll struggle a bit but i'll do my best, don't tell anyone will you?"

    "Ah, ok"

  18. David Roberts Silver badge

    Lack of context encourages speculation

    Reading the report, the natural reaction is to speculate on what kind of medical complaint the staff member had.

    There is mention of depression, but that seems to be a major factor in the seriousness of the case; the depression makes the impact of gossip far more serious.

    My first thought (mea culpa) was "Please don't be offended if Joe refuses to shake hands. It is for your own good." however I can't see any obvious reason for a manager to share details of a staff member's illness unless specifically requested to. The staff member is perfectly capable of doing that if desired.

  19. EnviableOne Bronze badge

    Hey ICO might want to look at this

    Sounds like the Manager needs to be done for breaching DPA, but seeing how beusy they are at the minute, it might just get swept under the rug.

    but from previous prosecutions, it would be a fine for the individual, and probably lead to loss of job.

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