University warden sacked for ‘aggressive’ text messages was unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

But judge reduces claimant’s award by a quarter after deciding ‘blunt’ communications contributed to his firing

A lecturer accused of sending “aggressive” messages to colleagues has been awarded £15,000 for unfair dismissal after an employment tribunal ruled there had not been a proper investigation into the allegations made against him.

Sitting at the Leicester Hearing Centre, employment judge Adkinson said there had not been so much as the “beginning of an investigation” into a number of allegations made against Dr Binoy Sobnack by his employer, Loughborough University.

However, the tribunal reduced the compensation awarded to Sobnack because the “brusque, blunt and unnecessarily aggressive” tone of messages he sent to colleagues amounted to “culpable and blameworthy conduct that contributed to everything that happened”.

Sobnack started work at Loughborough University as a physics lecturer in 1999, and in 2002 took up an ancillary role as a warden of a students’ halls of residence. It was in this ancillary role that two colleagues raised complaints against Sobnack for his manner of communication.

In June 2018, a volunteer sub-warden, Mr Henry, raised concerns after he was told by Sobnack that leaving his role would be “the best thing to happen to the hall”. The head of student services, Dr Manuel Alonso, told Sobnack this behaviour was “entirely unnecessary and unprofessional”, but no further action was taken.

In May 2019 a complaint was lodged by Ms Chang, a volunteer sub-warden of the Harry French hall of residence, who alleged Sobnack had accused her of trying to delay her start date “to avoid carrying out her duties”. Sobnack allegedly had not believed her when she tried to explain her circumstances and, on 4 April 2019, sent her an aggressive text message in a group chat with all the sub-wardens saying: “Why don’t you listen?????? Stick to what has been decided!”

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Chang complained it was “inappropriate and humiliating in tone to use so many question marks” for a message directed to her that her colleagues were also able to see.

The university’s head of legal services carried out a formal investigation in response to the complaint, but in her report said she had “not been able to identify sufficient evidence to support an allegation of bullying and harassment by [Sobnack], in particular with reference to the basis of the complaint”.

The report did, however, note that “the tone and manner of some of the communications [...] have been unhelpfully emotive”.

In October 2019, another sub-warden, Ms Doma, made a complaint to the university’s HR team about Sobnack regarding his conduct in his role as warden. This was passed on to Alonso who, on 25 October, met with Doma, who told him that Sobnack’s behaviour and communication style was “aggressive and confrontational”.

In particular, Doma alleged Sobnack was trying to control her whereabouts, even when she was not on duty. She shared a number of text messages with Alonso in which Sobnack was very insistent that Doma tried to check in on a particular student’s welfare regardless of whether or not she was on duty. The student had attempted self harm and Sobnack, who believed Doma had already built a link with the student, was concerned about continuity and earning the student’s trust.

One message from Sobnack to Doma read: “You tried to see [the student] only once yes yet again? It is a pastoral matter?” And in response to a conversation about working on weekends, Sobnack had said to Doma: “This is bullshit. I will continue having meetings on weekends.”

Doma, who under the terms of her visa was forbidden to work more than 20 hours per week and had to keep a record of her worked hours, also alleged that he asked her to work in excess of 20 hours but not to record those extra hours in her time sheet.

Believing the allegations to be “strikingly similar” to the previous complaints, Alonso felt he could no longer have any trust and confidence in Sobnack and discharged him from the role of warden.

Alonso arranged a meeting with Sobnack on 8 November 2019 and on 15 November Sobnack was given a term’s notice. The letter of dismissal made no reference to a right of appeal. Sobnack presented his claim to the tribunal on 11 June 2020.

In his ruling, Adkinson said: “It never even occurred to [Alonso] that most of the allegations made by Mr Henry and Ms Chang were found not to be proven,” and that the allegations by Doma “were just that – allegations: there had not been so much as a beginning of an investigation to ascertain their veracity or accuracy”.

Moreover, the previous allegations had not resulted in any disciplinary process or sanction; Sobnack had been a warden since 2002 and there had been no complaints until Henry’s complaint; and the contract of wardenship prescribed a process for dealing with disciplinary matters that was not followed.

“Dr Alonso decided that he was going to dismiss Mr Sobnack from his role of warden. It was a firm decision. He no longer trusted Mr Sobnack and was not open to the possibility that his decision might be an overreaction, was based on unproven allegations or a complete misjudgement,” Adkinson ruled, describing the decision as “a knee-jerk, gut reaction”.

The judge added that while Alonso “genuinely believed” an investigation would serve no purpose, “no reasonable employer reflecting on those matters would have dismissed there and then”.

“Instead, if they believed that they had lost trust and confidence in the employee, they would have started a process akin to a disciplinary process,” the judge said.

However, Sobnack’s basic award was reduced by 25 per cent because of his own contribution to his dismissal. The judge described Sobnack’s message to Doma as “brusque, blunt and unnecessarily aggressive in tone”, noting that Sobnack had been “advised to watch his tone in his text communications” but had “ignored it”.

Sobnack won a basic award of £4,129.38 and a compensatory award of £10,299.84.

A Loughborough University spokesperson told People Management: “The university does not dismiss people for poor punctuation. This case centred around concerns from a number of sub-wardens (who were also students) of inappropriate treatment by a halls of residence warden, and the university acted accordingly.”

Of the ruling, Sobnack said it was “amazing that, in his judgment, the judge makes almost no reference to the fact that the whole thing started as a result of a sub-warden not doing the right thing vis-a-vis a vulnerable student”.