Care home manager accused of verbally abusing resident was unfairly dismissed

Tribunal finds investigation lacked any objectivity or rigour after row over ‘derogatory’ comments

A deputy care home manager accused of verbally abusing a vulnerable resident has been awarded £11,000 after a tribunal found she was unfairly dismissed.

Carol Streener, who worked for Barchester Healthcare, was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct after a complaint was made that she had allegedly told a female resident to “stay in her own shit”.

However, North Shields employment tribunal ruled that the investigation lacked “any objectivity or rigour”, with investigators simply accepting statements from other members of staff. The judge added that at no point did the investigation seek to interview the resident who made the initial complaint.

Streener worked for Barchester from 2005 and became a deputy manager in 2012, based at Woodhorn Park Care Home in North Shields. On 11 June 2018, the local council received a complaint that a resident was being treated inappropriately by a member of staff. Another employee, Julie Deborah Bond, was initially believed to be the subject of the complaint. However, when it transpired the subject was Streener, Bond was made the investigating officer.

According to one eye witness, Streener had noticed an unpleasant smell coming from the room of a resident known as G and asked if she had an accident, which she denied. Streener then looked into the bathroom and saw it was smeared in faeces. The eye witness said Streener spoke to G about having a bath but that G refused, after which Streener allegedly said G could “stay in her own shit”. 

The court heard there was some ambiguity over whether the word “shit” or “muck” was used, however three staff members in total were interviewed and all told versions of the same story. Streener was suspended.

In a meeting with Bond on 27 June, Streener accepted the conversation between herself and the resident had taken place. She said she told G she would have to close the door because of the smell and also to protect her dignity. She denied using the words “muck” or “shit”.

A short report based on the investigation was compiled, in which Bond stated: “Carol [Streener] is the deputy manager of Woodhorn Park and is expected within her job role to lead by example. Raised voice and derogatory comments made directly to a resident is not acceptable and constitutes abuse”. Bond recommended the matter proceed to a disciplinary hearing. 

On 6 July, Streener was summoned to a disciplinary hearing where she was advised that if the allegation was found to be proved it would be considered gross misconduct under the company’s disciplinary and dismissal policy and her employment might be terminated.

During the meeting, Streener said G was her aunt, had a history of self-neglect and that it was necessary to be firm with her to persuade her to have a bath. She also pointed out her “impeccable” work record. 

Following the meeting, in a letter dated 16 July, Bond told Streener: “I am satisfied that the witness accounts in the main collaborate with your version on how you handled the situation, however your conversation with the resident constitutes verbal abuse. I consider your actions to be gross misconduct and having considered all alternatives, I have decided to take the most severe sanction an employer can take against an employee and dismiss you.” 

Streener appealed, however this was rejected.

The tribunal ruled Barchester Healthcare’s investigation of the allegations “fell outside the band of a reasonable investigation of a reasonable employer” and that Streener had therefore been unfairly dismissed.  

Employment judge Andrew Buchanan said that no consideration had been given during the investigation to interviewing G to see if she was willing or able to give her account of what had occurred on that day. “In failing even to consider engaging with G on that point, the respondent acted as no reasonable employer would have acted,” the judge said.

He also did not accept that either the word “muck” or “shit” had been used by Streener

Buchanan added: “The dismissing officer did not approach the decision-making process with any objectivity or rigour but simply accepted the unsigned and undated statements of the other members of staff placed before her without testing that evidence in any way. I conclude that the dismissing officer read the file and determined there and then that the claimant was guilty of gross misconduct and was to be summarily dismissed.

“That process is not one which any reasonable employer would have followed.”

However, Buchanan accepted the conversation which took place was critical of G and evidenced a lack of patience and care. He held that Streener did contribute to her dismissal by approaching the matter in a confrontational way and responding to G “in a way in which she ought not to have responded”. 

After a deduction of 40 per cent for her own contribution, Streener was awarded £11,603 for unfair dismissal.

Paul Holcroft, associate director of Croner, said an important part of the decision was the reminder that just because an incident is classed as gross misconduct does not mean a summary dismissal is automatically fair. 

“A failure to take into account mitigating evidence – including length of service, previous disciplinary record and context – will not be reasonable,” he said. “If, on consideration of this evidence, a sanction less than dismissal would be a fair and reasonable conclusion, going forwards with a dismissal is likely to be challenged.”

Holcroft added the case also highlights the need for an investigating officer to be impartial and unconnected to the incident. “Handing over the investigation to someone who was initially thought to be the perpetrator will not meet this requirement.”

A Barchester Healthcare spokesperson said: “Our commitment is to the safety and wellbeing of our residents and this is reflected in everything we do. This dismissal was in relation to the treatment of a resident and as such we took robust action in order to protect the vulnerable residents in our care.”