Kingston loses tribunal

October 20, 2000

Kingston University dismissed senior lecturer Agi Oldfield unfairly, giving her an ultimatum to "resign or be sacked" after she made informal complaints of harassment against her line manager and complained about breaches of her contract, a tribunal has ruled.

Ms Oldfield, a principal lecturer at the school of human resources management, resigned from Kingston, but the South London tribunal ruled that she was constructively dismissed. The university "repudiated" her contract by giving her the ultimatum, said the tribunal chair, Mr I. S. Lamb, in his judgment.

In late 1997, Ms Oldfield complained orally to David Miles, dean of the business faculty, saying she felt harassed and bullied by her line manager, Christine Edwards, who had questioned Ms Oldfield's competence.

The tribunal did not adjudicate on the allegations and counter-allegations between Ms Oldfield and Professor Edwards, but found that the difficulties were handled badly, at the expense of Ms Oldfield's career.

The university repeatedly asked Ms Oldfield to withdraw her allegations, she was assigned a new line manager and removed as an MA course director. In June 1998, Ms Oldfield brought a formal grievance, saying she had been "summarily removed" as course director of an MA in breach of her contract.

"The considerations of the continued employment of Ms OldfieldI her role and job title, responsibilities and pursuit or withdrawal of the allegations against Professor Edwards, wereI overlapping with each other," said Mr Lamb in his written judgment.

During the grievance hearing Ms Oldfield was told by personnel director Elizabeth Lanchbery - criticised by the tribunal for being "underhand" - that if the issues could not be resolved, Ms Oldfield might have to be "sacked", Mr Lamb said. Ms Oldfield's grievance was rejected and rejected again at appeal by vice-chancellor Peter Scott.

In October 1998, Ms Oldfield was offered a job at Surrey University, despite an "unfavourable verbal reference from somebody at Kingston", the tribunal said. "By then, Ms Lanchbery had said to Ms Oldfield that it would be best if she accepted the position, because unless she resigned, she would be sacked," said the judgment.

Mr Lamb said: "Up to September (when the job at Surrey came up) Ms Oldfield was pursuing the internal grievance procedure. As she did so, there was a gradually deteriorating background state of affairs relating to her relationship with Christine Edwards, in particular the factor that Christine Edwards questioned her competence.

"(Ms Oldfield) was constantly told to withdraw her allegations, although she was not formally pursuing them... We accept the evidence that the final straw in the course of events was the statement by Ms Lanchbery that the applicant should resign or be sacked," he said.

The university believed "there had been a breakdown of relationships and that Ms Oldfield was behaving unreasonably", said Mr Lamb. "The university did not act reasonably in treating that as a sufficient reason for dismissal.

"What (Ms Oldfield) had done was to pursue the grievance procedures... as she was entitled to do. She was willing to record that she was not pursuing her complaints against Christine Edwards. The university's responsibility in that situation was to find her alternative responsibilities commensurate with her position as a principal lecturer. Instead it adopted the 'take it or leave it' attitude...

"We accept that the effective cause of her resignation was the breach of contract by the (university) and the outright repudiation of her contract by the ultimatum."

The tribunal decided unanimously that Ms Oldfield's complaint of unfair dismissal was "well-founded".

A remedies hearing will be held next month. The university said it could not comment until the case was finished.

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