News ‘Ostracised’ college manager unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

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A sixth-form college senior manager who was fired after making protected disclosures against his boss was subjected to detrimental treatment and unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.

Benjamin Lane was ‘ostracised’ and ‘isolated’ by colleagues on Weymouth College’s senior leadership team after they discovered he had ‘blown the whistle’ on principal Nigel Evans over concerns relating to alleged failures to safeguard the college and its pupils.

Lane had worked as the finance officer at Weymouth College from September 2013 to March 2016, where he was also a member of the senior leadership team.

The college, which offers courses for students aged 16 and above, dismissed Lane after a series of investigations into the concerns he had raised about the principal.

These disclosures initially related to Evans’ backing of the potential reappointment of Andrew Gilbert, a former teacher at the college who had been dismissed from his role in 2013 after conducting an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Gilbert was called before the professional conduct panel (PCP) of the National College for Teaching and Leading in 2016, and was ultimately debarred.

The whistleblowing allegations related to an internal case regarding Gilbert’s later reapplication for a job at Weymouth College some time after his dismissal.

Evans acted as a character witness for Gilbert at the PCP, and told the panel he would have ‘no hesitation’ in re-employing him, despite him seemingly not knowing the circumstances of his dismissal.

Lane was concerned about the impact the PCP decision might have on the college’s reputation.

At a subsequent senior leadership team meeting following the PCP ruling, Lane raised concerns about Evans’ backing of Gilbert, and about Evans’ apparently lax attitude to alleged alcohol consumption during working hours, which he was concerned could impact on pupils.

At the meeting, David Fallows, chair of Weymouth College’s governing body, told Lane that he was “forcing” the board to choose between him and the principal, and that a “Ben v Nigel” process would begin if he continued his complaints.

Lane was concerned by this language and raised a second written protected disclosure regarding Evans’ behaviour.

Shortly after Lane made the disclosures, Fallows informed Evans that a “senior manager” had raised a complaint against Evans, without disclosing who. Although he asked Evans to keep this confidential, he did not, and, having discovered it was Lane, he approached other staff members to tell them that Lane had complained about him.

Lane’s complaints gave rise to two investigations of Evans, in which he was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

During those investigations, Fallows emailed the senior leadership team referring to the group “cleaving into two gangs” over the incident.

According to emailed evidence before the tribunal, the onus was placed on Lane to repair the damaged working relationship with Evans. Lane was warned that “failure to do so would be seen as insubordination and failure to comply with a management request”.

In June 2016, Lane was signed off work sick because of work-related stress, having raised further allegations against other individuals in the senior leadership team, which included accusing Phil Templeton, the college’s IT director, of reading his emails, although these were said to be unfounded.

As soon as he was fit to return to work in October 2016, the college suspended Lane and subsequently dismissed him in December 2016 on grounds of “the breakdown in relationships with the senior leadership team”. The college alleged that these “would be put in great jeopardy if you returned”.

Lane appealed the decision, but the college dismissed this in February 2017.

He successfully claimed unfair dismissal because of whistleblowing at the employment tribunal under section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 in March 2017.

The tribunal ruled that his claim was well-founded and that he had been subjected to detriments on the grounds of his protected disclosure. These included his ostracisation by colleagues, prevention from appealing the grievance outcome and suspension by the college.

Section 47B of the Employment Rights Act states: “A worker has the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by his employer done on the ground that the worker has made a protected disclosure.”

The tribunal rejected the college’s allegations that Lane had made the complaints in the hope that he would step into Evans’ job if Evans was fired as a result of the protected disclosures against him.

Although it stated in the judgment that some of Lane’s actions were blameworthy, including that some allegations regarding his colleagues were based on “nothing more than supposition and, effectively, guesses”, it confirmed that the college’s action were at fault.

“We consider that the actions of [Weymouth College], almost immediately from the first complaint being made, were to seek to alienate and isolate the claimant: the comments made, the disclosure of [Lane’s] identity as the complainant, the early expressions of desire to have him removed from the [senior leadership team] […] and latterly the investigation panel all indicate to us that the respondent was keen to end this complaint as soon as possible.”

Alan Price, Peninsula employment law director, said it was crucial for employers to protect whistleblowers’ identities. “While there is no legal requirement stating that employers have to protect the identity of the whistleblower, it is best practice to maintain confidentiality as far as possible – unless and until a disclosure is required. This will reduce the likelihood of the employee being subjected to a detriment by colleagues or by the subject of the allegation at work, such as being isolated, alienated or confronted,” he said.

“Managers need to ensure they are aware of how personal information can be protected – for example, in this case disclosing that a complaint had been raised by a ‘senior manager’ easily led to the identification of the whistleblower, whereas ‘management team’ or a different reason for the following investigation would have made this less likely.”

According to the judgment, the parties agreed privately on a remedy sum after the tribunal ruling.

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