Whistleblowers: Ex-Surrey lecturer wins unfair dismissal case

January 17, 2003

The management school at the centre of a landmark whistleblowing case after it sacked a lecturer who complained about his director has been found to have unfairly dismissed another member of staff who made similar complaints.

An employment tribunal has found that Surrey University unfairly dismissed Agi Oldfield, a lecturer at the Surrey European Management School, when it sacked her without notice, without consultation and without allowing her to appeal. It emerged during the hearing that Ms Oldfield's complaints that she had been harassed by Sems director Paul Gamble had been partially vindicated by a university grievance panel.

Similar harassment allegations against Professor Gamble form part of a separate case against Sems by lecturer Geoffrey Darnton, who was sacked in 1999 as a result of a letter of complaint he had written to the vice-chancellor. The THES reported last month that Mr Darnton's claim that he was victimised for blowing the whistle, which was initially rejected by a tribunal on the grounds that his complaints did not attract legal protection, will be reheard later this year after he won an appeal.

In the latest case, the tribunal heard that Ms Oldfield raised complaints against her managers months after joining Sems in February 2000. In June she complained that Professor Gamble, who is currently on extended research leave, had stopped her carrying out external examining commitments and had sent her to an overseas workshop at a time when he knew she was planning to take annual leave.

Two weeks later, Professor Gamble accused her of underperforming, which prompted her to complain again. In December 2000 she made an official complaint of harassment.

Early in 2001, she was signed off by her doctor for work-related stress. During her absence, Professor Gamble wrote to her regarding her failure to mark exam papers. He said it was "a serious disciplinary matter" and proposed a meeting, which he warned was "likely to result in a formal written warning".

The relationship worsened, with further periods of absence and disputes over how best to reassimilate Ms Oldfield into work. It culminated in summer 2001, when the university reported on her grievance.

The tribunal said that pro vice-chancellor Nigel Gilbert "recorded that the relationship of trust and respect" had broken down, "probably irrecoverably". "He went on to state that there were a few instances where Professor Gamble's behaviour was such that a reasonable person would think that the conduct amounted to harassment." In particular, he referred to an email Professor Gamble had sent to Ms Oldfield, attacking her performance, where "he found the tone and style of the email (to be) unacceptable".

But he also said that in some instances, Professor Gamble was simply exercising his prerogative as head of school to criticise her performance, and that actions such as "not paying her bonus, prohibiting her from attending an examination board... and allocating additional marking" were "reasonable".

The managers' conclusion after the grievance was that Ms Oldfield should be sacked. The tribunal said: "There had been no prior warning to the applicant of the possibility of dismissal. The applicant was dismissed without any meeting to discuss her future and without the opportunity... to put forward any proposals to save her job. No appeal was offered and the applicant's attempt at appeal was frustrated." These "procedural shortcomings... are such as to render the dismissal unfair".

Although lecturers' union Natfhe said it had rarely come across such a blatant case, the tribunal is unlikely to award large damages to Ms Oldfield after it concluded that the relationship breakdown meant her dismissal had become inevitable, irrespective of the procedures used, and that she had contributed to her own difficulties.

A spokeswoman for Surrey said: "The tribunal found in all the circumstances that dismissal of the applicant was justified and that they could not see any alternative other than dismissal." She highlighted the tribunal's finding that "the applicant's conduct was a major contributory factor to the dismissal, her various demands and her general conduct had closed off all possibilities not only within Sems but also elsewhere within the (university)".

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