A former Queen Mary University of London academic was unfairly dismissed but contributed “100 per cent” to his demise because he disobeyed a direct management instruction to teach a course, an employment tribunal has ruled.
John Allen, formerly professor of biochemistry at Queen Mary, was sacked in May 2014 after a turbulent two years that began with his co-authorship of a letter to medical journal The Lancet. The letter lambasted a metrics-driven restructuring plan at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and alleged that the head of school and Professor Allen’s line manager, Matthew Evans, failed to meet one of the criteria he had imposed as a condition of continuing employment in the school.
Both letter writers were charged with misconduct. Fanis Missirlis, who was then a lecturer in cell biology at Queen Mary, was sacked for failing to meet the performance criteria before his case was heard. Professor Allen, however, was acquitted – largely, the tribunal ruling says, because the charges were misdrafted.
In September 2012, Professor Allen began a year’s sabbatical, which had been agreed with Professor Evans before their relationship broke down. While he was away, he was invited to a meeting with Professor Evans to discuss his alleged failure to meet various performance metrics. Professor Allen argued that he had he met them and, after a further email exchange, “completely disconnect[ed] from any workable relationship with Professor Evans”, although he "intended to resume cooperation when he returned from sabbatical".
Professor Evans subsequently sent him several emails setting out his intention to remove Professor Allen’s entire pre-sabbatical teaching allocation and to replace it with a new one. According to the tribunal ruling, Professor Allen ignored some of the emails, “was obstructive in responding to others and disengaged from the respondent’s need to properly plan for the forthcoming academic year”.
Professor Allen argued that both his contract and common understandings of academic freedom entitled him to be consulted about changes to his teaching allocation. The ruling agrees that the absence of consultation was “unreasonable”, although it adds that academic freedom “did not confer a right…to flatly refuse to teach courses he was able and competent to do”.
Professor Allen was formally disciplined in late 2013 for refusing to teach the course and for poor performance, resulting in a written warning. However, the tribunal judge rules that Queen Mary’s response to a grievance Professor Allen submitted at the same time against Professor Evans was “confused and unreasonably delayed”.
Professor Allen was then asked by a different manager to teach another course. When he said that he would not, he was sacked for refusing to obey a “reasonable management instruction”.
The ruling says that this amounted to unfair dismissal because the dismissal panel had failed to take into account the dispute over the removal of Professor Allen’s previous teaching, which the tribunal deems to be unreasonable and with which his subsequent attitude was “inextricably linked”.
However, Professor Allen has been denied any compensation because he “contributed to his dismissal by 100 per cent” for refusing a reasonable management instruction. Through his general conduct, he had “clearly demonstrated that he was not prepared to be managed”.
The tribunal also rules that the Lancet letter does not meet the legal definition of whistleblowing and that Professor Evans met the metrics threshold.
Professor Allen is now an affiliate at University College London and has been awarded a research fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust but currently does not have a lab.