Imperial College London acted reasonably in sacking a researcher whose working relationship with his head of department had irretrievably broken down, an employment tribunal has ruled.
But the tribunal also ruled that Philippe Froguel, head of the department of genomics of common disease at Imperial, harassed Robin Walters, a researcher on a fixed-term contract, by describing his wife and fellow academic, Alexandra Blakemore, as paranoid.
Professor Blakemore, now a professor of human molecular genetics in Imperial’s department of medicine, was Professor Froguel’s deputy when their relationship unravelled in 2011.
Dr Walters, who is now a senior scientist at the University of Oxford, alleged that various abusive encounters he subsequently had with Professor Froguel at Imperial left him suffering from “acute adjustment disorder”, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms of depression and anxiety. He refused to work any longer with Professor Froguel.
Dr Walters, Professor Blakemore and several junior researchers submitted formal complaints about Professor Froguel’s alleged bullying.
At a tribunal hearing in January, Professor Froguel described the complaints as part of a “conspiracy” to replace him as head of department with Professor Blakemore.
In a judgement issued on 7 April, the tribunal ruled that Professor Froguel’s description of Professor Blakemore, to Dr Walters, as “paranoid” amounted to “harassment related to disability”.
There was no suggestion in the hearing that Professor Blakemore actually was paranoid.
Dr Walters was eventually sacked by Imperial in December 2011. But his claim of unfair dismissal was rejected since he was employed and funded to work on a specific European-funded project that Professor Froguel headed. His refusal to work with the project leader made this impossible.
“To put the matter at its lowest, it was open to [Imperial] to judge that Professor Froguel’s [high] reputation was such that it was essential for him to remain as head of department and in charge of his part of the [project],” the ruling says.
Dr Walters said he felt “vindicated” by the harassment ruling. “But it is clear that current laws are insufficient to protect employees against many forms of unpleasant behaviour, and that a specific law against bullying in the workplace is long overdue.
“It should not be possible for [it] to go unpunished simply because the perpetrators are seen as valuable by the employers.”
A complaint to the tribunal by Professor Blakemore of victimisation, harassment and discrimination was settled before hearings began.
A spokeswoman for Imperial said it would “review carefully” the harassment ruling. “Imperial has transparent procedures in place to deal with any allegations of inappropriate behaviour and takes very seriously its duty of care to provide a working environment…that is supportive and free from any type of bullying, victimisation and harassment,” she said.
The judgement says the “sorry history” of the case “does no credit to a world-renowned institution and some highly talented individuals”: “[They] should accept shared responsibility for allowing their own vanity and self-interest to draw them into an utterly destructive conflict which could yield no winner.”