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Merging NHS trust unfairly dismisses HR manager

While two of her colleagues’ cases failed, an HR manager at a merged NHS trust has won her claim. The claim was for unfair dismissal and she won it even though she failed to apply for a suitable alternative position.

Cathrona Leeke who worked for Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust had her case heard at East London employment tribunal. The judge examined the details of the planned merger between Basildon & Thurrock University Hospital NHS Trust and Southend University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

The judge ruled that because Ms Leeke had contributed to her situation by declining a senior HR lead role and not applied for an interim head of HR position, she would only be paid 50% of any award.

Ms Leeke along with two colleagues had filed a joint grievance to Clare Panniker, the group chief executive. This took place in 2017 after they discovered that colleagues in Southend and Basildon were paid more for the same positions.

The three also brought a grievance because the jobs they were later offered were not on the same level as the jobs they already held. Part of their complaint was that the word ‘manager’ was not included in their new job titles.

In 2018 the trust panel along with an external HR director advised that the positions were equivalent.

In Ms Panniker’s opinion this meant that the grounds for refusing alternative jobs was unreasonable and they would not be entitled to any redundancy payments. She told the tribunal that despite the claim she was prepared to keep the three women employed within the trust. Ms Panniker informed them of her decision.

The tribunal heard the other two colleagues who lost their jobs, Ms Sarah Stewart and Catriona Stevenson had already secured alternative employment.

Judge Benjimin Burgher stated that the claimants felt that the entire consultation process was a sham and that the intention was to dismiss them. He felt that Leeke, Stewart and Stevenson had not been flexible with the merger and they did not handle the consultation process with a co-operative mindset. Had they done so things may have turned out differently.

Judge Burgher stated that the alternative role as senior HR lead positions offered to the claimants was a suitable choice because it offered the same grade, pay, hours and location as their former roles. Likewise, the jobs were at a comparable level even though previous specific duties were not needed. The skills they offered, and their experience would be useful in the more expansive group role.

The tribunal ruled that although each of the women had unreasonably refused alternative work, he had no doubt that had Stewart and Stevenson accepted the placements of senior HR lead role, Leeke would have followed their decision.

Ms Leeke, the judge concluded, was conflicted in that she wanted to remain working in the trust but did not want to disagree with her working team. If she had done so, she would have undermined the claim for redundancy payments.

The judge dismissed all three claims for contractual and statutory redundancy payments. Because Leeke had shown her desire to stay at the trust even though she had not applied for the senior HR role, her claim for unfair dismissal ‘on this procedural ground’ succeeded.

The merger between the two trusts has been put on hold until further review by the government.

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