Kath Harmeston – Not Fired For Whistle-Blowing, Court Says

We have now read the 65-page judgement in the Kath Harmeston unfair dismissal case so we can clarify what was somewhat confusing reporting last week. Today we just have a brief discussion of the key points – we will be back with more next week. It is a very clear and well-written report, so praise to the judge for making sense of some complicated matters and some unconvincing evidence.

To be clear, she lost in her core claim – that her dismissal was brought about by her making “protected disclosures” (whistle-blowing) about bad practices with the Co-op.  She did however win on a minor matter – that the Co-op delayed paying her legitimate expenses because of what had happened. She will win some damages for that although we’d be surprised if they were large, certainly nowhere near the £5 million she was seeking for the wider case.

It is important to understand that this does not mean her dismissal was “fair”. Indeed, the internal Co-op hearing, chaired by a director, Paula Kerrigan (one of the people who come out of the case with some credit) suggested that a written warning for “breaking procurement policies” would have been sufficient. Indeed, if the Co-op was going to fire Harmeston for breaking the procurement policies then it should have fired most of the senior team, considering that engaging consultants without competition and on vast day rates seemed to be pretty endemic.

But the key element of the case was that the Co-op were not being totally honest in terms of why they wanted rid of Harmeston. That was in part down to some concerns about performance; but the bigger factor was that she had engaged Silver Lining Partners, a consulting firm.

Now the “official” criticism of her was that she didn’t follow procurement policy in doing so; but the underlying factor was the Co-op’s concern that she had engaged the firm at all. That’s because the Co-op received a whistle-blowing communication from someone at Royal Mail, saying that the consulting firm’s contract was terminated at Royal Mail amidst claims of incompetence and more, before Harmeston exited the Royal Mail under a compromise agreement. Clearly, the Co-op knew nothing of this when they hired her, so you can understand their concerns once that came to light.

The findings are critical of the Co-op evidence in places and a number of their witnesses are pretty much accused of at best distorting the truth; for instance, a key email was altered and no-one knows who did it. So why didn’t Harmeston win? Well, because the court found that she was not dismissed because of her whistle-blowing. Indeed, the Co-op was supporting her attempts to get procurement under better control; and she did not raise any suggestions of illegal behaviour for instance until well through the process.

So the reasons for her dismissal may have been somewhat unsatisfactory, and the process clearly wasn’t handled well, but it was those other factors that got her fired, not her findings on how senior execs were spending the Co-op’s money. And you cannot claim general unfair dismissal when you have only been in post a few months; it has to be a “special” case such as sex or race discrimination, or whistle blowing.

So, a victory for the Co-op but not one that shows the organisation in a particularly good light. And we are left with the biggest question of all. Given what happened at Royal Mail, why on earth would Harmeston bring the same firm that had caused her such issues last time round into the Co-op? Only she can answer that question.

First Voice

  1. Dan:

    Rather brilliantly, it appears that Silver Lining Partners are using Royal Mail as a case study on their website – they write about the work they did for a “Government Communications Provider”

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