Bates v The Post Office: Learnings for employers

Bates v The Post Office: Post Office sign

Have you watched Bates v The Post Office?

From the outset the string of lies began, damaging the relationship between the Post Office (PO) and the sub-postmasters.

Disclaimer, there may be some spoilers throughout this blog post!

Due to failure in leadership, one million people in the UK have signed a petition for Paula Vennells (PO’s ex-boss) CBE to be removed.


Why as a HR consultancy, are we speaking on the topic?

This scandal has (and will continue to have) significantly damaged the PO’s reputation which will have a major impact on their employer brand.  Also, the impact on company culture will be catastrophic leading current employees to wonder if they can trust their employer and whether or not they want to continue in the employment relationship.  

Background to Bates v The Post Office

The Bates v The Post Office case stems from the flawed Horizon IT system, costing the PO an estimated £1.5 billion for the setup and rollout. Rather than accept the new system was incorrect the PO accused sub-postmasters of theft and fraud, including false accounting based on incorrect information from the Horizon system.

There were 555 claimants involved in the case, the accusations had shattering consequences on the accused, leading to financial ruin, imprisonment, and inflicted severe stress. The situation impacted many of the sub-postmasters’ mental health, having devastating consequences including suicide. The case also made a mockery of the British Justice System.

Repeatedly, the sub-postmasters were told “You’re the only one having these issues”, to deflect the issues back on them and not the faulty system. Many were required to pay tens of thousands back.

The Bates v The Post Office scandal highlights the human cost of company errors as well as the requirement for the company to maintain ethical management whilst maintaining employee trust. HR plays a critical role in these areas.

Employer Brand

All organisations have an employer brand. “It’s the way in which organisations differentiate themselves in the labour market, enabling them to attract, recruit, retain and engage the right people” (CIPD).

Right now, the PO looks untrustworthy, dishonest, fails to follow correct processes, and is unsupportive towards employees. Why would potentially talented candidates apply to a dishonest company? This may also lead to many talented employees seeking new employment following the unethical practices by the PO.

The breakdown of trust stems from the PO refusing to acknowledge Horizon’s faults and failing to properly investigate the issues. Refusal continued even with contrary evidence. This case highlights the importance of transparency and honesty in company communications to employees.

The PO will struggle to rebuild trust, an essential element of a healthy working environment.

Following the scandal, the PO is now being investigated by the Police for fraud after blaming IT faults on the sub-postmasters.

Unfair Company Procedures

The poor handling of this situation by the PO is evident throughout. Their procedures come into question with the lack of investigations and disregard of the sub-postmaster’s grievances. Underlining the failure to have fair procedures in the workplace. As an outsourced HR consultancy, ensuring companies follow fair and legal processes is at the forefront of all discussions, especially when it comes to disciplinary and grievance situations.

Problematic management

The PO’s management and leadership team demonstrated a lack of accountability with the raised concerns, aggravating the situation and further damaging the PO’s reputation. The leadership team had sought key information on the issue of accessing the sub-postmaster’s accounts remotely after the accused were already told they couldn’t, and by that stage many were already prosecuted.

Furthermore, PO continually pushed back on providing information and when it did, most information was redacted. HR’s role in holding management teams accountable and upholding ethical standards prevents such ethical lapses.

HR is equipped to handle crisis management, and having an unbiased partner like an outsourced HR company can be a proactive intervention. This includes providing advice on how to potentially mitigate the damage caused by the Horizon System failures.

During the mediation process, that took over a year, many of the accused walked out of these meetings. Mediation can be a powerful means of resolving disputes but perhaps the claimants felt they could mediate successfully under the circumstances.

Learnings for employers from Bates v The Post Office

It underlines the requirement for employers to have a robust system in place for accountability, employee grievances, and disciplinaries. Ensuring transparency across communication in the workplace, keeping the trust between employers and employees. Time and time again, we see where the failure to follow the correct procedure leaves employers in hot water.

Don’t ignore employee concerns and if unsure how best to handle a situation, seek external support, especially for HR advice. By doing so, you have an extra layer of protection for the business.

Employers should be cautious and monitor procedures to prevent breakdowns in trust and relationships.

The Bates v The Post Office scandal serves as a powerful reminder of the consequences when trust and ethical management are side-lined in company procedures. By learning from this scandal, HR can play a pivotal role in guiding companies through turbulent times, ensuring that the rights of every employee are upheld.

Future implications

The judgment of Bates v The Post Office may lead to reshaping the understanding of good faith and fair dealing in employment in UK employment contracts. Alongside the requirement for rigorous testing and accountability before the implementation of a new technical system in a company, especially those with the size of investment as Horizon.

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