Whistleblowers: University failed to resolve 'staff conflict'

March 28, 2003

Liverpool John Moores University forced lecturer Des Smith to resign when it failed to deal with a breakdown of staff relations in its journalism department, a tribunal has ruled.

The Liverpool employment tribunal ruled that journalism lecturer Dr Smith was unfairly constructively dismissed when he resigned from the school in June 2001, because the university had reneged on its duty to deal with problems in the department and had tried to "foist the burden of resolution" on to staff.

The tribunal heard that relations and angry exchanges had got so bad in the department that a libel writ was threatened and at one point staff were told they could not send each other any emails without the approval of the head of school.

Dr Smith joined LJMU's journalism department in September 1997. In February 2000 he complained to his head of school, Roger Webster, about his line manager, journalism department head Dick Rooney.

The tribunal said: "By the end of September 2000, the situation had become critical. The relations between (Dr Smith) and Dr Rooney had in effect broken down."

There followed a series of bitter exchanges between the pair and other members of staff. In one memo, Dr Smith accused Dr Rooney of harassing and bullying staff.

Dr Rooney counter-claimed that Dr Smith was harassing him and informed Professor Webster that he was considering issuing a writ for defamation against Dr Smith.

The tribunal chairman said: "By this time (November 2000), many employers would have regarded the situation as critical." But he added: "Professor Webster decided to let matters lie... It should have been clear to the (university) that there could be no resolution without intervention."

In March 2001, another lecturer in the department, Richard Rudin, circulated a letter of complaint against Dr Rooney "criticising him professionally". Dr Rooney again responded by claiming he was being harassed.

In May 2001, Dr Rooney was replaced as manager of the journalism department. This "should have happened much earlier" the tribunal said.

Members of the department were then told that "there should be no exchanges of email... without vetting by Professor Webster".

Dr Smith wrote to the vice-chancellor Michael Brown, criticising the university and threatening to go public. Professor Webster suggested he invoke the grievance procedure and set a seven-day deadline to May 18.

The tribunal said the attempt to set an ultimatum "was a demonstrable failure to manage" on the part of LJMU.

The university then turned to the arbiters - the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service - for help. But the tribunal said that to write to Acas was an "inadequate response" and to "wait a month for a reply was inexcusable given the problems".

Dr Smith went on sick leave, but the university further "inflamed" the situation, the tribunal said, when it told him he would have to see an occupational health specialist just four days after calling in sick.

In June 2001, Dr Smith resigned, complaining of "appalling" staff relations, Dr Rooney's conduct and the university's failure to address the situation.

The tribunal said: "By the time the applicant had tendered his resignation the journalism department had become dysfunctional. An employee is entitled to expect his employer to manage such situations and not seek to foist the burden of resolution on to the employees.

"The (university) was in fundamental breach of the implied terms of mutual trust and confidence; that was the principal reason for his terminating his contract. He was therefore dismissed."

But in its December 2002 judgment the tribunal found that Dr Smith had contributed to his own dismissal through unreasonable conduct, intemperate and inappropriate emails and abusive language. After a "remedies" hearing last week, his compensation is likely to be decided next week.

A spokesman for LJMU said: "The university has welcomed the opportunity the tribunal has provided to bring transparency, clarity and closure to this situation. While the applicant was unfairly constructively dismissed by the university, he has been found guilty of contributing 60 per cent of blameworthy conduct."

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