The claimant in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board v Hughes was a senior nurse who contracted Parkinson's, and could no longer do clinical work. Her grade and pay was maintained by creating a non-clinical post for her, helping to develop the nursing service. However, bit by bit the meaningful aspects of this alternative role were chipped away; examples given included her training responsibilities being taken over by someone else without reference to her and detailed written reports not being progressed, without explanation. Over a period of about five years, her role was apparently reduced to managing the stacking of boxes. Eventually she was signed off sick with stress, did not return to work and was dismissed two years later.
For the sequence of events to constitute harassment related to her disability; it had to be unwanted conduct which had the purpose or effect of violating her dignity or of creating a demeaning environment. The Employment Tribunal considered that it did have that effect.
Although in a harassment claim the effect of the employer's conduct has to be considered from the employee's point of view, there is nevertheless an objective element – a tribunal must look at whether it was reasonable for the conduct to have had that effect. Here the EAT decided that this was not a reasonable conclusion for some of the individual episodes. For example, a letter to consultants explaining that the employee's health had deteriorated was entirely unobjectionable; the employer wanted to avoid the claimant being embarrassed by being asked to assist with procedures she could no longer undertake.
Likewise, occasionally unwittingly referring her to occupational health at times when her condition was actually improving could not be regarded as violating her dignity or creating a degrading environment.
However, the EAT decided that although some individual instances did not meet the harassment test, and despite the employer's undoubted good intentions, the Tribunal was entitled to conclude that the employer's conduct overall (albeit unwitting) in causing or allowing the slide in status from senior nursing sister to being asked to look after cardboard boxes, was conduct which violated the claimant's dignity and therefore constituted unlawful harassment.