Harmeston Tribunal Ends – Which Way Will It Go?

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The Kath Harmeston employment tribunal has come to an end and we understand the decision should be made next week, but it may be several weeks before the verdict is made public. Harmeston is claiming unfair dismissal against the Co-op Group after her tenure as Procurement Director lasted just three months during 2014. The Co-op claims there were performance issues and that she brought in a firm of consultants, Silver Lining Partners (SLP), without explaining that she had worked with them at Royal Mail and there had been an investigation into the firm's role there. However, there did not seem to be any suggestion during the proceedings that the investigation found evidence of wrongdoing, we should say.

That seems to be a key issue here. There was no clarity on whether she had got permission from her boss to engage SLP, and there was no suggestion that she gained personally from brining them in to the Co-op. So without evidence of wrongdoing by Harmeston or SLP, then it is hardly a reason for the Co-op to use it as a reason for dismissal, particularly as the senior team at the Co-op happily bought in consultants on huge fees without much process.

Harmeston claims it was the fact that she was exposing these practices that led to her sacking - she was suspended just 15 minutes before she was due to give a presentation to the Board. However, Harmeston would appear to have weakened her own position by attempting to engage SLP without going through a proper procurement process.

But the whole conflict of interest issue on the Co-op side is very interesting, with the COO, Pippa Wicks, being an Alix Partners consultant on an £8,000 day rate. Yes, £8,000 a day. The Co-op then brought in other Alix Partners people, one who was paid £600 an hour (and did lots of hours a week). The CEO, Richard Pennycock, also gave the tribunal an explanation of why the rate paid to other consultants working on   was kept secret - that did not exactly smack of good governance or transparency either.

The Co-op also claim that Harmeston's performance was not up to standard. Her report identifying potential savings was not of a good quality, and her estimate of savings was unrealistic, they say. Well, we obviously can't comment on the detail of that, but if you sacked people for unrealistic savings estimates there would be no-one left in the procurement practices of McKinsey, AT Kearney or most of the consulting firms to be honest.

No-one has come out of this well - not Harmeston, the Co-op and their senior managers, or the two consulting firms involved. We have our suspicions as to what the verdict might be, but it is finely balanced we suspect, and we will have to wait and see. Whatever the outcome is, we will be back with a lot more commentary on this story then!

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  1. Hanson:

    SLP allegedly sacked for malpractice at Post Office (Editor’s note; whether that is true was not clear from the tribunal) and she was sharing internal Co-op communications with him and hired him? Why was an IT procurement consultant advising her about her employment with the co-op and its new COO as she claims? Ill-advised, incompetence, or, personal involvement? At least the Co-Op seemed to identify concerns about her and act on them quickly. What is described about consultant hiring practices by executives is normal in most organisations, at least until an enlightened Procurement Head influences and persuades them to do differently. She was hired to be part of the team and advise – not to whistle blow. Are her claims just in defence of her malpractice in the first place?

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