Managers who lack leadership qualities identify themselves by saying: “There is nothing I can do,” and expecting someone else to sort it. Unfortunately, many managers are only to willing to leave it to someone else, as this story illustrates.

‘Unfortunately, many managers are only to willing to leave it to someone else’

I was just walking past his desk when he says: “You may find this interesting,” and hands me a sheet of A4 headed, Policy changes from the DH. “Thanks,” I say, barely breaking my stride. That afternoon he comes round and asks if he could borrow my copy as he has given me the last one and someone else had requested one. He comes round again about an hour later and asks to borrow it again, apologising and saying that as fast as he is writing it out people are asking for it.

“Writing it out? Why don’t you just take some photocopies?” I suggest. He replies: “Oh I can’t do that, it’s against departmental policy to photocopy published material.” I say I am not aware of that but, in any case, I don’t think it would apply in this case. I offer to run-off half a dozen photocopies. “No,” he says. “I know you’re trying to help but I would then be distributing material I know to have been illegally copied.”

Just then a young woman comes up to the photocopier and makes a copy of the very same document. My fellow worker tells her she should not be photocopying it and explains why. She says: “Too late, I have already taken and given out several copies.” To which he replies: “Oh dear, I better send an email round telling people not to do this.”

Later I get an email explaining in great detail that this document should not be photocopied and if I have an unauthorised copy I should destroy it. I note that this email has gone to a long list of staff. The next day I get another email telling me that if I am in any doubt about whether the copy I have is authorised I should destroy it just to be safe. I get another email the next day on the same subject and one the day after that. I delete these without reading but others have replied and he has copied me into their replies and his responses.

I go to see him to tell him to stop sending me emails as my inbox is full. He says he is sorry but I ‘m on his circulation list. So I say: “Take me off,” to which he replies: “I can’t if I do that. I will never remember who I have give documents to.”

The emails keep coming and are no longer restricted to the photocopying of documents but I am copied into everything he sends out. I approach a member of his team and tell him what’s happening. He simply points to his desk, which is covered in pieces of paper. “These are just what he has put on my desk today,” he says.

“Well, clearly he has a mental health problem,” I say. “You said that, not me,” and he walks off. I take my concerns to his manager, who says: “I know, there is nothing I can do about it,” and then picks up the phone and starts a conversation.

Harrassment complaint

Returning from lunch there is a new email. This one grabs my attention. It is headed, Formal harassment complaint, and states: “It has come to my attention that you have been talking about me to colleagues and you had said that I have a mental health problem. I consider this harassment and bullying, and have made a formal complaint to HR.”

I march straight into my line manager’s office and hand her the email. I tell her the full story, including my attempt to raise the matter with the manager. She is sympathetic but clearly neither surprised nor shocked. She advises me to go and get advice from personnel and, whatever I do, not to respond to the email.

Upstairs to HR and I see the HR manager I normally deal with and who I have a good relationship with. I show her the email and she simply says: “I can’t discuss this with you. Take it up with the head of HR.” So I do.

He is none too pleased at me bursting into his office while he is on the phone but motions for me to sit down and ends his call. I show him the email. He says I shouldn’t worry. I was one of half a dozen staff sent the same email including two of his HR officers.

A little calmer I give a brief account of events finishing with my opinion that this individual has a mental health problem. “No he doesn’t,” says the head of HR. “According to the occupational health specialist we referred him to he has a repetitive behaviour disorder. He can’t help what he does. It’s a disability and we can’t dismiss people who have a disability. We need to be sympathetic and understanding.”

“Well you can stop him sending unwanted emails.”

“How?” asks the head of HR.

“Get IT to remove the facility for sending emails on group lists, get a block put on certain email address so he can’t send me any more,” I reply.

“We have tried technical solutions but once he fixates on an individual, if you block his emails he will just send you notes, which will appear on your desk. Best just ignore it and hope he moves on to someone else. After all, they are all work related. And it’s best not to comment on his behaviour. It will only make things more complicated.”

“Hold on,” I say. “Just stop him from using his computer on the grounds he is abusing it.”

“If we do that he won’t be able to do his job,” he replies.

“Exactly,” I say. At which point I leave.

Three months latter, having heard nothing more about the formal harassment complaint, I learn that the individual had left and was taking the trust to an industrial tribunal claiming constructive dismissal. The case became much discussed at HR conferences and 18 months later the head of HR was headhunted by a multinational based in Leeds that was looking for an HR specialist who could “think out of the box”.