Former Queen Mary lecturer’s unfair dismissal claim rejected

Tribunal rules that academic’s post was genuinely redundant

March 27, 2014

A lecturer’s position was genuinely redundant even though an apparently equivalent position was advertised a short time later, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The issue was at the heart of former cell biology lecturer Fanis Missirlis’ unfair dismissal claim against Queen Mary University of London.

Dr Missirlis, who is now a research professor at Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute, argued that Queen Mary’s advertisement of a new lectureship in cell and molecular biology just two weeks after his dismissal in 2012 undermined the university’s claim that his position had become redundant.

He argued that, in reality, he was dismissed because he allegedly fell below a metrics-based research performance assessment carried out by Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

However, in dismissing his claim, the tribunal judges accept Queen Mary’s argument that the areas of research expertise required for the new lectureship were different from those of Dr Missirlis and that, besides, he would not have met the research output and quality criteria for the new post.

They say in their judgement that since the purpose of the school’s reorganisation was to improve its research ranking, it needed “more academics whose research output and quality [were] ‘high’ when measured by recognised external metrics and fewer whose output and quality [were] low. This…inevitably involved considerations of performance but…was not based on the consideration of individual capability in the first instance but the requirements of the school as a whole.

“Performance management [by contrast] is a process addressing an individual’s weakness either as a means of improving them or dismissing the employee.”

Addressing Dr Missirlis’ observation that his eventual replacement had published fewer papers than him, the judges say that since the replacement is a former postdoctoral fellow taking up his first lectureship, he was “not a true comparator”.

The judges also dismiss Dr Missirlis’ claim that the redundancy selection criteria were designed to target critics of the school’s management, such as himself. They note that several other “potential ‘troublemakers’” remained employed. They conclude that the selection criteria were fair in both conception and application.

Although Dr Missirlis was the only member of staff compulsorily dismissed, the judges note that another eight left the school having signed settlement or compromise agreements.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Having sat through most of the hearing and from the judge’s remarks as the case proceeded, I formed the view that what most colleagues regarded as the unfairness visited on Dr Missirlis by Queen Mary’s controversial managers had to be regarded by the Tribunal as an academic issue where the law could not intervene. Thus university leaders were entitled to change the direction of teaching and research in any department and to dismiss staff by a retrospective capability assessment against arbitrary criteria “even if this was madness”, as it was a legitimate exercise of their notional responsibilities. In the present case the managers argued that research metrics (chiefly grant income and the impact factor or reputation of journals) were legitimate components of a job description, and could be used to assess the suitability of any existing employee during a restructuring, even if such criteria had not been a part of the appointment process for that individual. The Tribunal agreed, although the judge pointed out that the application of employment law in the academy was difficult, as in one sense everyone was doing the same job and in another sense every academic followed a different pursuit. Despite the outcome, the case brought to light several facets of the redundancy exercise which might be seen as questionable practice, notably the revisions made to assessment criteria as selection proceeded and the unclear definition of how an academic member of staff might qualify for a Teaching and Scholarship contract. Witnesses called by Dr Missirlis testified that a number of the more effective teachers and administrators in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences had now left, after reaching Compromise Agreements. It remains unclear how the competences and skills of these colleagues will be replaced.

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