Argento jewellery boss denies claims by sacked manager
Right of way row at centre of dismissal, tribunal hears
An employment tribunal has begun into the dismissal of a business manager who claims he was sacked for not padlocking a disputed gateway on his boss's land.
Richard Ferguson (39) represented himself at the opening hearing at Killymeal House in Belfast yesterday.
He was dismissed from his post after six weeks on September 23, 2016, by Peter Boyle.
Mr Ferguson was employed as project and business development manager at Argento Contemporary Jewellery on August 8 2016, when he was assigned four projects.
His role entailed bringing in new business and conducting research for the projects.
They included turning Knockbracken reservoir into a watersports centre; and managing corporate facilities at Ormiston House, a gin distillery, and the Belfast Kayaking Academy.
Tim Warnock, representing Argento, told the hearing that although Mr Boyle owned the reservoir site, there was a house on the land owned by make-up artist Paddy McGurgan that had a right of way for access. He said the pair had been negotiating through solicitors over whether to install automated gates.
The tribunal heard how Mr Boyle had a legal responsibility to secure the entrance as he would be "criminally liable" if someone drowned in the reservoir, and there were concerns that youngsters were illegally gathering there to drink alcohol and swim.
Mr Warnock added that Mr Ferguson had been sacked for "misconduct", which included showing up uninvited at his employer's home early on a Monday morning and referring to another manager as a "vindictive charlatan".
But this was disputed by Mr Ferguson, who said he was told to padlock the original gate and not give a key to Mr McGurgan - essentially preventing him from accessing his home.
He claimed it was his refusal to do so that resulted in his dismissal. He also claimed that it was compounded by the fact he had made "protected disclosures" and, as a whistleblower, faced an internal conspiracy to "expel" him from the company.
He said: "I was told to put a padlock on the gate and not give McGurgan a key. I did not think this was a good idea as I thought there could be health and safety issues. What if he took ill and an ambulance needed in, or there was a fire and the fire engines could not get to the house because the gate was locked?"
He added that he had been invited to a performance review meeting, but decided not to go as "it was a case of window dressing".
"I knew there was unscrupulous behaviour going on in the background," he told the tribunal.
"The meeting was just a formality, it was just a smokescreen. I believed it was their opportunity to expel me from the company.
"It was essentially a conspiracy and the process of the meeting was rigged. I had taken the view that it was a fait accompli," he told the hearing.
Under cross-examination, Mr Ferguson said he had shown up at his former employer's home as he had been asked to by Mr Boyle, and believed that it was a catch-22 situation.
He said: "I took advice on it, on whether to go. If I had refused to go I thought they would try and use it against me, saying I had breached policy.
"I thought it would be the same if I did go. It was a situation where I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't."
The "invitation" was disputed by Mr Boyle, who said he had been in his pyjamas getting his six-year-old ready for school on the morning of the visit on September 12, 2016.
He added that he was surprised to see Mr Ferguson on his doorstep asking for the return of a book he had loaned him the week before, and asked him not to call again.
Mr Boyle said: "He was not invited to my home, he just showed up. He looked for my address online as none of my employees are aware of where I live nor are invited to my home. I conduct business in the office."
Mr Boyle also said he did not ask Mr Ferguson to padlock the gate or tell him not to give Mr McGurgan a key.
The tribunal heard how Mr Ferguson had "surreptitiously recorded" a number of conversations during his employment including his initial job interview and the morning he called to Mr Boyle's home.
The tribunal is expected to last six days.