Former lecturer wins tribunal against University of Northampton to prove that she was unfairly dismissed

University says it is ‘disappointed’ with ruling as union calls for review of work culture

By Logan MacLeod
Thursday, 5th May 2022, 9:44 pm
Updated Friday, 6th May 2022, 6:38 am

A former lecturer at the University of Northampton (UoN) has won her tribunal against her former employer for unfair dismissal back in December 2020.

Christine Hill, who was a full time senior lecturer in footwear, started working at the university in 2015 before resigning in October 2020 after becoming a target for bullying by a member of staff, the tribunal heard.

The bullying took place over the course of around one year between 2019 and 2020, according to Employment Judge Tynan's report.

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Ms Hill won her case against the university proving that she was unfairly dismissed and a victim of bullying.

The judge analysed events and correspondence between Ms Hill and the staff member including educational trips abroad, the questioning of working arrangements, a “lack of support” following a restructure in the fashion department, “general bullying behaviour”, contractual issues regarding working from home, and the mishandling of a grievance complaint.

In response to the outcome, the University and College Union (UCU) said UoN needs to address its “toxic work culture”.

UoN UCU branch chair Nick Cartwright said: "Unfortunately, it is not at all surprising the tribunal ruled that UoN unfairly dismissed Ms Hill.

"UCU has raised issues including the culture of bullying, excessive workloads, and a grievance procedure that isn't fit for purpose many times with management.

"The university now needs to stop trying to brush these issues under the carpet and address the toxic work culture that led to Ms Hill being bullied out of her job."

A University of Northampton spokesman responded saying it is “disappointed” with the outcome of the judgment.

The spokesman said: “We were disappointed with the outcome of the recent judgment and are reviewing the decision to see what lessons can be learned.

"We do not accept that the decision in one case represents a toxic work culture as we have excellent managers at UoN, many of whom are UCU members.

"Our grievance policy is based on ACAS guidelines and - like all other policies - is constantly reviewed to explore where improvements can be made.

"We have proposals for a number of measures to support the workload of our academic staff, which will be presented to UCU to consider with their members as part of our ongoing discussions.”

What happened?

The judge's report, published in March 2022, says that by early 2020, Ms Hill was experiencing “work related stress, exacerbated by her perception” that she was being bullied by the member of staff.

When Ms Hill finally approached the member of staff for a one-to-one meeting in February 2020 regarding a “huge strain” on her workload, she was reduced to tears.

Judge Tynan said in their report: "I accept that when the claimant [Ms Hill] tried to explain that she was struggling, she experienced the staff member as increasingly cold, indeed seemingly angry.

"I further accept the claimant’s evidence that when she began crying, the staff member's response was not to soften her tone or show empathy or concern, instead I accept she said, ‘I knew we should have had the meeting in a private office’.

"I find that the claimant is not someone who is prone to tears. I conclude that her tears on February 25, 2020 were an expression of distress rather than a defensive response on her part."

Ms Hill consulted her GP who diagnosed her with a stress related disorder and offered her antidepressant medication, which she declined. She was initially signed off work for two weeks.

Ms Hill decided to pursue a grievance in August 2020 where she was let down by how the university handled its investigation.

Criticising the univerity’s grievance procedure, the judge said it “fell some way short of might reasonably be expected of a fair and reasonably minded employer”.

With Ms Hill now exhausted of all of her appeal options, she left her role in October 2020. She later had her contract terminated in December 2020.

In conclusion, the judge said in their report: "In my judgment the respondent’s handling of the grievance process through to conclusion of the appeal was in fundamental breach of contract, entitling the claimant to resign her employment.

"There was no reason for the respondent [UoN] to treat her as it did.

"The respondent acted in this matter without reasonable and proper cause. In the circumstances, I conclude that she was unfairly dismissed."