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Insight

The Requirement to Act Professionally in the Workplace - Think Before You Speak

Aisling Ray
11/11/2021

Locations

Ireland

A social worker was recently removed from the register of social workers in Northern Ireland after an Inquiry was held into allegations concerning dishonest over claiming of travel expenses and inappropriate and derogatory use of language in the workplace

Inquiry

The Northern Ireland Social Care Council’s ("NISCC") Fitness to Practise Committee (the "Committee") heard evidence from five witnesses who worked with the Registrant between July 2009 and March 2016. 

The witnesses gave evidence of occasions where the Registrant used what was described by them as inappropriate, derogatory, unprofessional and sexualised speech when referring to service users and their family members. In some instances, the Registrant used inappropriate language in order to describe instances of sexual assault experienced by service users, which one witness described as extremely insensitive and inappropriate and another said  was very graphic and "stunned her".

Evidence was also given that the Registrant cursed a lot and used derogatory and sexualised language as part of her everyday vocabulary. It was suggested by one witness in evidence that this approach may have been the Registrant's way of dealing with the complexities of her role.

One witness gave evidence concerning the use of inappropriate language by the Registrant when referring to a colleague, referred to as "Colleague A" during the Inquiry, and, when describing Colleague A's physique.

In finding that the facts alleged were proven, the Committee noted that, although the witnesses could not confirm the days on which the specific incidents referred to occurred, the evidence was consistent in terms of the culture of the office and, specifically, the type of language used by the Registrant. On this basis, the Committee considered it had sufficient evidence to find this allegation proven.

Evidence was also heard in relation to the alleged dishonest claiming of mileage expenses by the Registrant and the Committee also found these allegations to be proven.

Misconduct 

In considering whether the facts proven amounted to misconduct, the Committee considered that the witnesses had found the Registrant's language to be shocking and had never experienced this in another working environment. 

It was further noted by the Committee that, although there was no evidence that the Registrant used this language in front of service users, the conduct took place in the workplace and the Committee considered that the Registrant’s language was disrespectful to the service users and her colleagues. The Committee found that it was unacceptable and serious. A finding of misconduct was accordingly made in relation to the allegations concerning the language used by the Registrant. 

Findings of misconduct were also made in relation to the allegations of dishonestly over-claiming mileage for reimbursement of travel.

Fitness to Practise

When considering the Registrant's fitness to practise, the Committee formed the view that the language used by the Registrant brought the profession into disrepute. The Committee stated that respect and compassion are "fundamental tenets of the social work profession", and that the Registrant was in breach of these.

Whilst the Committee found that the Registrant had used "completely unacceptable and derogatory descriptions", the Committee noted that this aspect of the Registrant's misconduct could be capable of remediation if the Registrant had demonstrated insight into the language used and its effect on her colleagues and noted that she could take steps to refresh herself on the principles and values as set out in the Standards of Conduct and Practise for Social Workers. 

However, on the facts of this particular matter the Committee found that there was no evidence of remediation or insight on behalf of the Registrant. In finding that there was no remediation or insight demonstrated, the Committee had regard to submissions made by the Registrant in which the Registrant claimed that the Trust’s investigation was "a witch hunt" and that she was a victim of bullying and harassment in regard to the Inquiry.

The Registrant had contested all of the Particulars of the Allegations, and had emphasised that she did not wish to be part of the social work profession and had felt abused by the "relentless process" against her.

In light of these circumstances, the Committee determined that a risk of repetition of the conduct remained.

In considering the public interest, the Committee considered that members of the public would be seriously concerned at the way in which the Registrant spoke about vulnerable service users and her colleague. The Committee stated that social workers are "expected at all times to be professional, to maintain professional boundaries and refrain from making judgemental, derogatory, personal comments about vulnerable service users. In particular, there is an expectation that social workers treat their colleagues with respect, and carry out their professional duties in an honest and trustworthy manner."

As regards the dishonesty allegations, the Committee accepted that dishonesty is difficult to remediate and it had no evidence from the Registrant of insight into her dishonest behaviour. It therefore considered there to be a continued risk of repetition in relation to this aspect of her misconduct.

In all of the circumstances, the Committee determined that public confidence in the profession and the NISCC as a regulator, would be undermined if a finding of impairment of fitness to practise was not made.

Sanction 

In considering the appropriate sanction to impose, the Committee considered mitigating factors such as:
  • The Registrant had a good work history;
  • The Registrant had co-operated to some extent; and
  • There was no evidence that the Registrant's behaviour had caused direct harm to service users. 

Aggravating factors considered by the Committee included:
 
  • That the misconduct was committed at work;
  • It was consistent and repeated;
  • The Registrant showed a lack of insight and regret; and
  • It had the potential to put service users at harm if they had become aware of how she referred to them. This was considered to be a serious disregard for the NISCC’s Standards of Conduct and Practice for Social Workers. 

The Committee determined that "given the seriousness of the Registrant’s misconduct and her lack of insight and remediation of her failings", a Removal Order was the only sufficient sanction. The Committee determined that the Registrant’s behaviour was "fundamentally incompatible with being a registered social worker". It was noted that the Registrant had abused the trust which service users placed in her and that she did not refer to service users with dignity and respect. The Committee found that the Registrant's dishonest behaviour was serious and at the higher end of the spectrum. 

It was accordingly concluded that a Removal Order was the suitable, appropriate, and proportionate sanction.

Professionalism in the Workplace

As can be seen from the Committee's decision, in making its decision it placed a key focus on the professionalism of the Registrant. Even though there was no evidence that service users had witnessed or been impacted by the Registrant's behaviour, the Committee clearly placed high importance on the fact that the impugned behaviour took place in the workplace and had the potential to impact on service users. The decision reinforces the potential implications for registrants who fail to demonstrate appropriate professional behaviour in the workplace. 

Written by Aisling Ray & Ayesha Ryan

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