Sunday, 24 January 2016

How not to handle a grievance - mistakes of an employee

With four years between me and the events that resulted in the end of my ten year career at Canterbury College, it feels like a good time to reflect upon the mistakes I made during my final few months. I'll be referring to documents I still retain copies of where possible (I'm a hoarder).

The period in question is the time between the events of January 12th 2012 and being made redundant on July 6th 2012. For background you can read -

On January 18th 2012, six days after the incident (I'll refer to it as that from now on), the Director of Finance & Corporate Services sent me a letter. The key points of this letter were that:
  • The incident would normally have been regarded as a potential gross misconduct were it not for my ill health.
  • I would be required to attend an Occupational Health appointment on January 27th 2012.
  • The plans to re-deploy me on a temporary basis with a view to potentially making this permanent, which had been put in place by my then Director and Section Manager, would be enacted upon my return.
The assumptions I took away from this letter were that, no blame was being assigned to me and that the College was going to re-deploy me in another teaching role. The first was broadly true I think, the second may have been true at the time (the plans had been discussed with me, but not enacted in time to prevent the incident), but it is not what eventually happened.

Having attended my Occupational Health appointment, I received a copy of my report, which was sent to me on January 31st 2012. My employer also received a copy. The points raised by this report included:
  • The presence of an underlying condition affecting my emotional health - a condition that "should be regarded as a disability in employment terms".
  • That it appeared a "substantial contributing factor" in my recent ill health was my job role at the time, and that I should not return to that particular role.
  • That an alternative role with a different "student group he will be teaching" had formed part of the referral.
  • That, as part of my return to work I should
    • Receive additional support to ensure I wasn't experiencing stress 
    • Have a phased return to work, possibly with training as part of this process
    • That a further review take place 2-3 months after my return
Essentially this appeared to imply that I was entitled to "reasonable adjustments", as defined within the Equality Act 2010, and that I would return to teaching with additional support, a phased return, some training, and a review with Occupational Health after a few months. The only one of these things that actually occurred was a phased return to work. I did not return to teaching, I received no additional support and no training, and my health was not reviewed after 2-3 months.

One other outcome of the appointment was a request to contact my GP. I agreed to that request, with the consent form being sent to me on March 6th 2012. A supplementary report was prepared as a result of this request. The report was sent on March 22nd 2012. The supplementary advice from the report reiterated the advice outlined above.

After the initial report, I met with my Director and the Personnel Manager on February 15th 2012. The meeting did not go as I'd hoped, possibly in part because I allowed it to take place without the presence of a representative from my trade union, despite being offered the option. It was at this meeting that I was told I would not be returning to the College in a lecturing role. In an email to the UCU Branch Chair following the meeting I wrote:
"During today's meeting I felt the kind of sentiment described above was somewhat lacking, especially at the point when I was reminded that I could have been sacked for my behaviour. I felt that the underlying assumptions were that I had completely misread the situation on the day that I smashed the window, that I had failed to adequately identify to the College that I was struggling to cope with the role, that it was assumed that my difficulty in this role was due to some extent to an inability to cope with the general stresses of teaching and the wider roles in which I engage and that my experience in the pre-16 department did not constitute bullying."
In this email, I outlined some points I felt should be acknowledged by the College going forward. I failed to fully pursue these specific points, and thus they were never acknowledged. The points I raised were:

  1. At points during my period in Pre-16 I was subject to bullying and that this was unacceptable.
  2. That the bullying I suffered was a contributory factor to my depression, stress and the eventual resumption of self-harming.
  3. That it was inappropriate for me, having specifically removed myself from the classroom due to mental distress and having informed both Personnel and my Line Manager that I was self-harming again, to be encouraged to re-enter the classroom and engage in a discussion with a large group of students about my professionalism, behaviour and classroom management.
  4. That the College will do everything practicable to ensure that this kind of situation does not arise again.
Upon my return to work I was placed into a non-teaching role. I never signed the new contract, as I disagreed with the move, but I did fulfil the role. I suspect had I refused to fulfil the role, I might have had more luck in mounting any challenge, though I might also have risked my recovery.

Soon after my return, I ventured into my old department to retrieve some personal items, on a day and time when I expected no teaching to be taking place. I was wrong (the timetables had changed) and, as a result, I received en email from my, now former, Section Manager, which said (names as hash tags):
"Given the current circumstances please could I ask you not to conduct visits to the Pre 16 department, especially when there are students present. I'm led to believe that both ### #### and Personnel have advised you to keep away from the area."
I took exception to this email, and my response was as follows:
"You seem to be labouring under a misconception.

I have been into H block this week to retrieve my property rather than to visit. I've made a point of going outside what I believed to be normal teaching hours, or when I have been told no students were present. There were students up there on one occasion, when I came to retrieve my cup, but as it was on Wednesday afternoon I had expected that they wouldn't be present.

As far as I recall I was not asked to avoid pre-16 by ### or #### as frankly avoiding any area of the College when students can rightly go where they wish, and when you are an elected staff representative, is frankly impractical.

I will, of course, be sure to ensure that any further encounters I have with Pre-16 students (five have spoken to me in the refectory in the past week) are in no way as distressing for them as my recent episode of mental ill health was.

I thank you for raising your concerns." 
I copied my response to individuals outside the organisation, as well as my union representative. I did so because I felt that the initial email was unfair. I did not pursue this, bar forwarding it to another union rep who suggested a "wait and see" policy. In retrospect I might have pursued this further given the potential effects on my return to work.

I did make an attempt to pursue some of my other concerns with the Personnel Manager.  I requested various pieces of information for my records on April 2nd 2012. Apart from an offer letter of sorts, which was sent prior to my email on March 28th 2012, and despite receiving an email saying that "I am in the process of putting this together for you", I did not receive the bulk of the information I requested:
"Could I have in writing an offer letter for my new role with the reasons for withdrawing the role offered in ###### ########'s letter dated 18-01-12 and also for removing me from my first aid contract?
Could I have copies of the relevant notes taken and actions agreed during the two meetings between us and ###? 
### mentioned in our first meeting that an investigation had taken place into events surrounding my ill health. For obvious reasons he was unable to contact me for a statement. Please find attached a statement I produced for #####. Could I also have a letter outlining the outcome of his investigation as it pertains to my circumstances?" 
One outcome of my new role was that I was prevented from carrying out a secondary job role for which the College employed me, that of on-call first aider. I did follow this up by emailing my new Director specifically requesting the time to carry out the role. This time was refused, I thus was unable to complete the role. In retrospect, I should have pursued this further.

In the end I requested voluntary redundancy. I did so on the basis that my wages had been protected for six months, but that this was extremely unlikely to continue (my contract was changed from permanent to fixed term in September 2011) as I fully expected to be excluded from consideration for a lecturer's role. I never confirmed this by participating in the normal processes that occur at the end of a fixed term contract.

Just prior to leaving the College, I briefly explored taking matters further via my trade union. I produced a statement for them, on June 30th 2012, which read:

"I feel that Canterbury College has failed in its duty of care to me as a staff member, has discriminated against me by failing to make reasonable adjustments for my severe depression/self-harm and has constructively dismissed me through demoting me and allowing me to believe that I could not reasonably be redeployed to a lecturing role and thus could not survive financially. I have outlined details below and have documentary evidence for the majority of what I have stated.

Pre-16 Events:
  • Raised concerns about class sizes (contract was one staff member per four students)
  • Suffered homophobic bullying, verbal abuse and repeated implications of paedophilia
  • Two students who had committed acts of threatening behaviour, criminal damage, and verbal abuse were not expelled despite assurances (This resulted in medication with anti-depressants)
  • Duty officer was repeatedly called, numerous suspensions and disciplinary actions but no improvement in behaviour
  • Manager requested that I hide my self-harm scars at all times
  • I resumed self-harming and was hospitalised
  • I raised concerns about my ability to cope with ##### ##### in Personnel and #####  ########
  • I was told I would be redeployed after the Christmas holidays
  • On 12-01-12 I refused to continue teaching, ###### ###### intervened and cajoled me into a classroom discussion, three students raised concerns in front of multiple staff and students which I was expected to answer, I became so distressed I disclosed my mental health issues and smashed a window after walking out
  • 13-01-12 I was signed off for two months suffering work related stress and depression
Post Pre-16 Events:
  • I received a letter from ###### ######## stating there wouldn’t be disciplinary and that I would be returning as a lecturer
  • I attended an OH appointment which concluded I might well be able to teach again with appropriate support and that my condition was covered by the Equality Act
  • I had a return to work meeting during which I was told I would not be returning as a Lecturer, as the College felt I could not cope in the roles, but as an LSP, I raised concerns about my ability to survive financially, I was told by ### #### that I was lucky to have a job but that salary protection would be explored
  • I was offered salary protection for the remainder of my contract
  • I received an e-mail from ###### ###### requesting that I not visit the Pre-16 unit, even when students weren’t present
  • My self-harming and high levels of sickness continued
  • Aware that the College custom was to redeploy staff at the same or a lower role, having been prevented from applying for redeployment in more senior roles in both 2003 and 2011, and my inability to survive financially on an LSP role, I requested voluntary redundancy
  • Due to a lack of detail in my sickness reports, resulting from my continued depression and self-harm, I received an e-mail from ### ####### requesting a retrospective Doctor’s note, I pointed out this was not possible but did offer to let her see my self-certificates and my mental health appointment letter, I also e-mailed her with details of exactly how I’d self-harmed during this period and offered her photos of my scars
  • I requested permission from ### ####### to wear short sleeves which was agreed
  • I was made aware that an LSP in Pre-16 who had previously been a lecturer was being refused permission to be considered for redeployment as lecturer which confirmed my reason for seeking redundancy, I later confirmed that this is not a legal requirement and that emails from the Personnel Manager contradicted this, if I’d known this I would have sought redeployment"
Their response was to ask if I had taken matters up internally, which I had in the somewhat ineffectual way outlined above - though I had failed to raise a specific grievance, and also whether I was subject to a compromise agreement, which I was not. They also sent me paperwork for their legal scheme, which I received on July 5th 2012 - the day before I left the College. I never completed the paperwork.

So where did I go wrong? I suspect that the rambling description above manages to make it abundantly clear. However, having gone through the documentation, and experienced the situation, I think the points of caution for anyone who believes they have a grievance, especially in a redeployment/redundancy scenario, are:   
  • Don't leave it until the last minute - I never formally raised a grievance, and didn't consider doing so until it was effectively too late to do so.
  • Unions are there for a reason - I should never have attended a meeting without a union rep present and, whilst in some cases I did, all formal correspondence between being signed off and leaving the College should have been copied to my union rep.
  • Keep it simple - I raised multiple different issues with a variety of different people at numerous different points. Some were justified, others perhaps not. Instead though, I should have stuck to a specific list of grievances and should have referenced those when raising supplementary issues.
  • Follow things up - Instead of pursuing each issue to its resolution I sat back and allowed the College to effectively ignore me until I went away. Grievance procedures have stages for a reason. 
  • Dot the Is and cross the Ts - I failed to follow specific processes and complete requisite paperwork. The procedures that appear to protect employers can be used by employees too, and paperwork is never a good reason to fail to act. 
  • Experience beats hearsay - I made a lot of assumptions about what would happen. Had I participated in any of the formal processes available, I might have achieved the outcomes I desired.
It's entirely possible that, had I pursued a specific grievance with the appropriate support, in the appropriate way, I would not have achieved a satisfactory outcome (and that I would not have been justified in pursuing it). No degree of retrospective insight will give me a truly objective view on that period of my life - I will always believe that the College failed me. But I do think it serves as a cautionary tale nevertheless, and that the points I've raised are worthy of consideration by those experiencing similar circumstances in the future.