Advocacy charity unfairly dismissed employee who had ‘controlling and aggressive’ manager, tribunal finds

Charity

An employee at advocacy charity Pohwer was constructively unfairly dismissed after working with a “controlling and aggressive” line manager, the employment tribunal has found.

The tribunal judge concluded manager Gary Beer “was not held accountable” for his behaviour by senior colleagues and the charity did not follow its own policies in handling grievances raised by staff.

Natasha Beckett, who brought the case, started working for the charity in 2005 but resigned as a service manager in October after being signed off with work-related stress linked to the situation with her line manager, the tribunal heard.

Pohwer told Third Sector it was “saddened” about Beckett’s experiences and said Beer no longer worked at the charity.

All parties could discuss any financial settlement or apply to the court for remedy, the judge said.

Tribunal documents say that Beer became Beckett’s line manager in April 2017, and in a meeting later that year he became “confrontational and aggressive” and shouted at her, the judge found.

The judge described this behaviour as “extreme and unwarranted” and wrote: “It is surprising he was not held accountable and/or at the very least asked to offer an apology” to colleagues at the meeting.

The judge also criticised the tone of an email Beer sent during the same period, which he said was “certainly abrupt and sarcastic, and not one expected in a professional environment”.

Six members of staff, including Beckett, raised informal grievances in response to Beer’s “aggressive style of communication”, the judge found.

A subsequent internal investigation found the email was a “one-off”, and the investigator recommended Beer meet with colleagues to “agree a communication style” for the future.

But Beckett was not told the outcome of this investigation until three months later, in breach of the charity’s own policies to share the outcome of grievance procedures within 10 days, the judgment says.

The judge concluded that this, along with the failure of a system designed to monitor Beer’s emails to colleagues, “demonstrates a failure by [Pohwer] in their duty to ensure a suitable working environment, given the claimant continued to raise concerns as to her wellbeing”.

Shortly after receiving news of the investigation outcome in early 2020, Beckett told a senior colleague “that she was not satisfied with the outcome, and was not going to put herself through mediation as the process had impacted her health and wellbeing”, the judgment says.

Beckett described herself as feeling “exposed and vulnerable”, but the charity “did nothing further to address her concern” at that time, according to the tribunal documents.

Beckett did not ask to raise a formal grievance, but the judge wrote: “I find the inaction of [Pohwer] to be highly surprising and contrary to their duty to ensure a suitable working environment.”

The judge described further emails from Beer to Beckett and other colleagues during 2020 as “unprofessional to the extent that his communication can be categorised as controlling and aggressive”.

He said the emails showed “a pattern of behaviour/communication which was inappropriate and that certainly ought to have triggered further investigation”, although he noted that the pattern may have been harder to discern because of changes in human resources staff.

In a meeting in September 2021, “Beer challenged [Beckett] in an aggressive manner” in front of colleagues, the judgment says. Beer later emailed Beckett about that meeting “but not apologising for his actions”.

Beckett was signed off with work-related stress for two weeks in September 2021.

The judge said “this appears to demonstrate an ongoing tolerance for Mr Beer’s behaviour” by the charity.

Beckett was signed off work with stress again in October 2021, and resigned a few days later.

Beer left the charity at the end of 2021.

The judge concluded: “I am satisfied that the claimant was constructively unfairly dismissed and she is entitled to remedy.”

A spokesperson for Pohwer said: “Although we are disappointed at the outcome, we fully respect the tribunal’s decision and are saddened by the experience of this ex-employee.

“As the events described in this case took place between 2017 and 2021, a period during which there were frequent changes in management, we are trying to understand what has occurred, what we could do better as a charity, what we could do to prevent a case like this occurring again.

“We take all allegations of bullying and harassment extremely seriously and always investigate them thoroughly.

“We are looking at the full findings to understand from them if there is anything we could do differently in the future and to consider next steps.

“The individual cited in the case is no longer employed by the charity.

“We are on a journey of continuous learning and will continue to strengthen safeguarding, whistleblowing and HR policies and procedures.”

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