Manager left in ‘intolerable’ working situation wins £60,000 for unfair constructive dismissal

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A manager who was left in an “intolerable’’ working environment after her company was acquired by another business has been awarded more than £60,000 by the Cambridge Employment Tribunal for unfair constructive dismissal.

The tribunal found that the manager’s resignation amounted to unfair dismissal in the case of Mrs A Fletcher v Countrywide Estate Agents.

At a hearing between 26 and 28 July 2017, it heard that Fletcher had been working as an office manager at Ashby Lowery estate agents in Northampton since November 2003.

Fletcher was responsible for managing the lettings and property management team, as well as the admin function, leaving her in charge of a total of 23 or 24 staff. She also dealt with tenants and landlords.

Fletcher had a good working relationship with the owner of Ashby Lowery, Darren Wilson. She acted as his second-in-command and was allowed considerable autonomy to run the business in the ways she believed served the best interests of clients and staff.

When Wilson was out of the office, which the tribunal heard occurred frequently, she was the ‘go to’ person for the rest of the staff body. Company employee turnover was reportedly low, with high customer and landlord satisfaction.

This changed after Ashby Lowery was sold to Countrywide Estate Agents – which describes itself as ‘the UK’s largest and most successful estate agency and property services group’ – in December 2015. This took place through a share purchase rather than a TUPE transfer.

Although the likely sale of the company was communicated to staff, there was little communication about the implications and no meetings were held. It was “a shock to the staff to receive the letter of 10 December 2015, from the respondent’s human resources department, welcoming the staff individually to the Countrywide Group”, the judgment stated.

In the following months, Countrywide had “no or only minimal contact” with Ashby Lowery employees, with no inductions, training or explanations of new working systems.

According to the tribunal, a number of problems plagued the newly transferred Ashby Lowery staff. These included alleged serious and persistent issues with the payment of salary, enrolment onto the Countrywide pension scheme, expenses and the payment of supply invoices.

This resulted in suppliers putting a stop on their dealings with Ashby Lowery, which lead to Fletcher and her staff being unable to obtain credit references for tenants or to register deposits.

On some occasions invoices were not paid on time, which led to suppliers ceasing their working relationship with the organisation, and meant Fletcher was unable to run the office properly, according to her evidence.

The tribunal heard that Wilson – who had become a Countrywide employee – did not wish to become involved in these problems, so Fletcher dedicated extra time to solving them, and acted as the receptacle for staff complaints and the chief point of contact with Countrywide.

Fletcher is said to have answered more than 700 complaint emails in four months but, when she approached Wilson for help and support, “she was told, in effect, to deal with it”.

In May 2016, Betty Barnes, Countrywide’s people business partner, met with transferred staff, noting they were “vociferous and negative” about their experiences with the company, but were uncomfortable approaching Wilson with their concerns. It was raised with her that Wilson was regularly away from the office, either on holiday or playing golf.

In April 2016, Fletcher met with a second people business partner, Helen Broomhead, to discuss her unhappiness with her job and the ways the role had changed since the transfer.

She flagged concerns that Wilson was less interested in the staff than before, and that while he was telling Countrywide senior management that everything was fine, he did not want extra support coming into the office.

Giving evidence to Cambridge Employment Tribunal, Broomhead said Fletcher’s “concerns [included] the fact that Mr Wilson was never in the office, that issues regarding processes since joining Countrywide had impacted mostly on the claimant and resulted in a lot of extra work, and that there were many people who were unhappy but they could not go to Mr Wilson as he rebuked them if they attempted to do so”.

When Fletcher attempted to discuss these issues with Wilson on 10 May 2016 – a day before she was due to go on holiday – he was “rude and dismissive [….] when she tried to explain what had been happening in the office, and showed a lack of concern about a staff member who was leaving”.

While she was on holiday, on 19 May 2016, Fletcher resigned from her employment, citing a lack of support, the “derogatory” and “hostile” conduct of Wilson and the difficulties since the acquisition.

She lodged a claim against Countrywide at Cambridge Employment Tribunal on 26 July 2017, claiming constructive unfair dismissal.

Under section 95(1)(c) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, an employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed by their employer. They also have the right to terminate their employment contract by constructive dismissal for reasons of poor conduct from their employer, if this constitutes a repudiatory breach of the contract.

Employment judge G P Sigsworth cited the “severe stress” to which Fletcher had been subjected by her working situation, and the lack of support she had received from her manager in leading her team. He said the behaviour of the company “amounted to a very substantial erosion of trust and confidence, and of the employment relationship. It was a fundamental breach of contract.

“[Mr Wilson] should have welcomed her human resources input, and tried to engage with the staff himself to raise their morale and sort out their issues. Mr Wilson may have not directed his anger at the claimant personally, but […] his hostility made her frightened and fearful for her own position.”

Handing down judgment, he said: “The real reason for the claimant’s resignation was the intolerable situation she found herself in […] I conclude that there was a constructive dismissal, and it was unfair.”

On 5 February 2018, Countrywide was ordered to pay Fletcher a total of £60,252, made up of a basic award of £8,622.00 and a compensatory award of £51,620.

Barry Stanton, head of employment law at Boyes Turner, said: “The claimant’s claim for constructive unfair dismissal succeeded following the acquisition of the business in which she worked. Her claim succeeded in circumstances where her complaints about lack of support went unheeded.

“The failure to address the problems ‘amounted to a substantial erosion of trust and confidence’ from the employment relationship.

“This case demonstrates the importance of listening to and dealing with complaints from members of staff. Failing to deal with such complaints and concerns can permit employees to resign and claim that they have been unfairly – or wrongfully – constructively dismissed.”

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