'Bullied' social worker unfairly and constructively dismissed by leading charity, tribunal rules
A social worker was constructively and unfairly dismissed by a well-known local mental health charity, an industrial tribunal has ruled.
Lynsey Wilson took a case against Praxis Care, which provides help for vulnerable adults and children with mental health issues and learning disabilities.
She joined the charity as a team leader in 2011, working out of its Locke House base in Portadown.
A four-day hearing in Belfast heard complaints by Ms Wilson that she had faced extreme stress, had not been effectively supported and was subjected to bullying by her line manager, Karen Harding.
Ms Wilson was absent from work from June 30, 2016, due to illness and did not return to her position before her resignation in February of last year.
She was initially certified as unfit to work due to mental and physical exhaustion.
During her absence, Ms Wilson was assessed by the charity's occupational health physician three times.
On the final occasion in late April 2017, despite being assessed as being fit to return to work, she was described as still experiencing "moderate anxiety".
Ms Wilson identified a number of factors which contributed to her workplace stress, including demands, under-staffing and a lack of support from and relationship difficulties with Ms Harding.
While Ms Wilson was absent, Ms Harding was promoted, meaning she was no longer her direct line manager.
However, a return-to-work meeting was organised in May 2017 at which Ms Harding was to be present.
Rejecting this, Ms Wilson requested that if Ms Harding was to be present she should be afforded the support of a representative from her trade union - a request that was denied.
The tribunal heard that Ms Wilson had a panic attack on the telephone with a human resources worker when advised of Ms Harding's proposed attendance at the meeting.
Ms Wilson then lodged a grievance by letter in which she formalised her complaint of bullying and detailed her concerns, including the handling of the return-to-work meeting.
Following an investigation into Ms Wilson's list of 29 complaints, an outcome letter in November 2017 stated that "no evidence of bullying and harassment" from Ms Harding could be found.
Ms Wilson appealed this outcome, but the charity did not uphold her appeal or find her complaints substantiated.
She resigned following receipt of the grievance outcome the following February.
The tribunal was told of an incident on June 21, 2016, nine days before Ms Wilson went on sick leave, when she had been shouted at and humiliated in front of her colleagues by Ms Harding.
Earlier that same year, in an appraisal, Ms Harding was critical of Ms Wilson's time management skills and compared her unfavourably with other staff.
Barrister Sean Doherty, acting on behalf of Praxis Care, suggested it was "a matter of interpretation as to whether this amounted to bullying".
He noted that Ms Harding had accepted she was direct and he conceded that she was undoubtedly confrontational due to her frustration that "paperwork had not been completed".
He characterised the incident as having happened "in the heat of the moment".
Mr Doherty further suggested that Ms Wilson's complaint about the grievance process was driven by her disappointment at not being vindicated.
In his submission, Mr Doherty said the return-to-work meeting was an opportunity to address matters and suggested the purpose of Ms Harding's attendance was "not to berate and criticise" Ms Wilson.
The tribunal found the conduct of Praxis "was likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence" with Ms Wilson and that she had "resigned in response to this conduct".
It also ruled that Ms Wilson's grievances were "not investigated in a fair and appropriate manner."
It did not accept Mr Doherty's contention that Ms Wilson did not resign quickly enough, stating that she chose to exercise her contractual right to seek redress of her complaints through the grievance procedure and appeal.
"She was reserving her position following the lengthy period of incapacity," it stated.
A further remedies hearing will be convened if both parties are unable to agree on financial losses incurred by Ms Wilson.