Worker who reported colleagues for mocking disabilities unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

Mental health charity also failed to make reasonable adjustments to support employee’s psychological wellbeing

A charity worker was unfairly dismissed and victimised after reporting colleagues for mocking a physically disabled person, a tribunal has ruled.

Miss C Robinson, who worked as a community outreach worker for Mind Monmouthshire from February 2016 to December 2017, was unfairly dismissed and victimised after she made a public interest disclosure detailing how she had witnessed a co-worker doing an offensive impression of a physically disabled person. 

The tribunal also ruled Mind Monmouthshire, a local branch of the national mental health charity Mind, failed to make reasonable adjustments for Robinson after her working environment started to affect her mental health.

It found the working environment was one of “frequent bad language and banter which overstepped the boundaries of acceptability in terms of equality and diversity”, and there had reportedly been “racially and sexually offensive language and comments made that were derogatory to people with mental and physical disabilities”.

In August 2016, Robinson overheard and saw the manager of Mind Monmouthshire’s tenancy and supported living team, Jaime Devine, and other members of staff imitating people with physical disabilities. Robinson contacted her line manager, Steph Thomas, and phoned one of the other members of staff involved to make them aware of what she had observed in the office.

Thomas invited Devine to a meeting with Robinson where he accepted what had happened and apologised to Robinson, but also said it was just harmless banter. Thomas asked Robinson if she wanted to make a formal complaint, but she chose not to.

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The incident was raised in the housing team meeting and further discussed at Robinson’s probationary meeting on 8 September 2016, the tribunal heard. However, the following day Robinson sent an email to Thomas complaining that the issue “had not been acknowledged” and the office had just “become quieter”.

The tribunal found it was “more likely than not” other staff in the office found out that Robinson had raised the complaint, with this creating a “‘them and us’ situation, which proceeded to isolate the claimant as the one who made the disclosure”.

Robinson worked out the rest of her contract, and started a new contract with the charity on 16 January 2017 as an information, advice and assistance worker. However, in March 2017 she started to develop symptoms of dissociation and suicidal thoughts. Robinson informed Thomas of this and was referred for counselling.

She was subsequently diagnosed by occupational health (OH) on 27 June with anxiety and depression, on top of a long-standing history of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Robinson told OH she felt, on returning to her new role, that she had been “sent to Coventry” – meaning she felt ostracised by her colleagues – for reporting the incident in 2016. 

OH recommended she not return to the same working environment as before, and that consideration could be given to an alternative work location or roles if these issues could not be addressed.

Thomas and Robinson met for a capability meeting on 18 July, where they discussed how the environment affected her work and wellbeing, the incident in August 2016, her being isolated by colleagues and OH’s recommendations. Thomas suggested she raise a formal grievance, but Robinson complained it was management’s responsibility to address workplace culture and that she felt the “onus was being put back on her to complain”. 

However, Robinson did raise a grievance on 28 July about the mocking incident, subsequent behaviour and the charity’s failure to meet OH’s recommendations. 

The grievance hearing took place on 22 August, but the tribunal found the response did not address Robinson’s concern that her treatment had affected her health. It also underplayed the importance of the initial incident with regard to whether Mind Monmouthshire had failed in its duty of care as an employer.

Robinson appealed against the grievance on 29 September. However, the subsequent investigation, led by the CEO of Newport Mind, David Bland, found there was no evidence that Robinson was bullied or harassed for complaining about the incident in August 2016.

Robinson resigned from her role by way of a letter dated 1 December 2017. She presented claims of unfair dismissal, disability discrimination and whistleblowing (public interest disclosure detriment and dismisal) to the tribunal on 12 March 2018. 

The tribunal unanimously ruled Robinson was automatically unfairly dismissed for making a public interest disclosure, that she had been victimised and that Mind Monmouthshire failed to make reasonable adjustments. In her judgment, Judge Alison Frazer said Robinson did raise a protected disclosure in August 2016, and her treatment amounted to disability-related harassment under the Equality Act. 

“The staff engaged in unwanted conduct relevant to the protected characteristic of disability, which created a hostile and degrading environment for the claimant,” Frazer said. “The claimant makes it clear in her witness statement that she viewed this behaviour as unprofessional and felt offended by the fact that this was happening in the context of staff who were serving vulnerable service users.”

The tribunal also found Mind Monmouthshire failed to make reasonable adjustments as it did not carry out the OH reports’ recommendations. Instead, the tribunal found Mind Monmouthshire “required the claimant to undergo a grievance procedure”. 

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said this was a clear reminder of the rules surrounding protected disclosures. "It is also crucial for employers to remember that, in cases where issues of discrimination are raised, they should not seek to cover up and dismiss these accusations as they run the risk of potentially costly claims," Holcroft said.

"As seen here, taking such actions, especially when a company operates in the third sector and therefore has certain expectations placed upon it, can also be very damaging for the overall reputation of a company."

A spokesperson for Mind said the organisation was “appalled” by the “reported behaviour of certain staff” at its Monmouthshire branch. The spokesperson added that local branches of Mind were “independent charities in their own right that affiliate to the Mind brand”, saying the charity was only made aware of the incidents via a complaint in 2018. 

“As the issue was already being taken to tribunal, it was not appropriate for us to investigate,” the spokesperson added. “We are confident that Mind Monmouthshire is now a robust organisation that meets our quality standards, but we will continue to take seriously any feedback about our local Minds via our complaints procedure and whistleblowing hotline.”

Robinson could not be contacted for comment. A date for a remedy hearing has yet to be set.