Accounts assistant berated ‘like a child’ in front of office was constructively unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

Judge finds senior management’s coldness after grievance meeting was a significant factor in employee’s treatment

An accounts assistant who was led to the middle of an open plan office and “berated” in front of his colleagues for several minutes was constructively unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.

The London Central Employment Tribunal found Liam Vaughan was subjected to “significant incidents of bullying” from management during his employment at Talbot Underwriting Services.

The tribunal concluded that the conduct of Vaughan’s employer, which did not offer any wellbeing support despite being aware of his treatment, was likely to “destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence”.

Vaughan had worked for his employer, a Lloyd’s of London underwriter, for four years with no formal issues before the bullying incident. His manager – identified only as B – described his performance as “good” in 2017 and 2018. However, at the end of August 2017 a member of the team went on long-term sick leave and Vaughan had to undertake additional work he was inexperienced dealing with.

Another colleague left in 2018, which again saw Vaughan undertake work he was not experienced in. Two members of the finance team told the tribunal they believed he “had not been given the appropriate training or guidance”.

In February 2019, Vaughan was asked by B to go to a table in the middle of the open-plan floor, where she “berated” him in front of his colleagues about errors on a financial statement. Vaughan told the tribunal that B had “good reason to raise the issues”, but said her manner and tone was “extremely shocking and belittling”.

He added this was not the first time he had been subjected to this behaviour by B, stating that the “continuous ridicule” left him in a “vulnerable position that undoubtedly has an impact on the work I produce”.

Other members of staff that witnessed the incident said they “didn’t like the way Liam was spoken to and the fact it was essentially in the middle of the office”. One said the encounter lasted for four minutes and that it made them feel “uncomfortable and sorry for Liam that he had to go through that in public”. The witness added later that day they saw Vaughan “being talked to like a child”.

Vaughan raised a grievance and was interviewed by a senior manager in the finance team and an HR manager. The grievance was upheld by his employers, and in April 2019 his reporting line manager was changed.

Additionally, disciplinary action was recommended against B alongside training and monitoring of her behaviour. B was given a final written warning, having been found to have  committed an act of “harassment (intimidation and bullying)” that may have been “systemic behaviour”. She was also given details of various courses to assist her, including one of dealing with positivity and resilience.

Following his grievance, Vaughan was signed off work for weeks with “anxiety, tension and poor sleep”, and after he returned to work he noticed he was being treated differently by several colleagues, including a senior manager.

In March 2019, a senior manager, who was aware of the incident with B, noticed that Vaughan’s performance standards had “slipped”. Judge Emery noted that at no time was the issue raised with Vaughan as to why this had happened. By 7 August 2019, his line manager was also raising concerns about his performance.

Vaughan had several conversations with HR and the finance team where he expressed a wish to resign, saying “he was not being treated fairly after his grievance and he was being set up to fail”. He was persuaded out of resignation by the senior manager on 21 August and withdrew his letter of resignation, saying he believed the company would not pursue a formal capability process and he would be “given a chance on a fairer playing field”, which the tribunal accepted. 

However, Vaughan received a letter on 28 August inviting him to a formal “stage one capability meeting” as his line manager felt he had an “attitude and negativity [and] there was no improvement”.

Vaughan told the tribunal that he felt his employer was being “deceitful” as he had already offered to resign. He added he believed his resignation was not accepted because his employer wanted to issue him with a written warning to prevent him taking them to a tribunal. He resigned on 3 September 2019.

Judge Emery said that “coldness” from senior management contributed to his view that his employer “was not happy with him following his grievance, and it contributed to his view that the respondent no longer wanted him to work for them”, and as such his claim of constructive unfair dismissal was well founded.

Emery also concluded that Vaughan was subjected to bullying as no steps were taken by the employer to check his wellbeing after “significant incidents of bullying towards him”. The judge also noted that support was provided to B.

Paul Holcroft, managing director at Croner, said the case highlights how serious managerial bullying is. “As seen here, the company’s clear mistreatment of an employee as a direct result of their complaint was a critical factor that led to them being found liable,” he said.

“Employers should always remember that the way staff are supervised is crucial to their continued productivity, job satisfaction and retention,” Holcroft said, adding that managers should be trained in appropriate ways of responding to employee performance issues.

The tribunal offered a remedy hearing and if the parties are unable to settle the financial elements of the claim they must return for a half-day hearing.

Talbot Underwriting Services was contacted for comment. Vaughan could not be reached for comment.