A former Thanet council building control surveyor has been vindicated after a two-year fight to clear her name and prove the authority unfairly suspended and constructively dismissed her.
Michelle Thompson, who lives in Margate, took her case to employment tribunal after a catalogue of breaches which saw her suspended, unfairly treated throughout an investigation and grievance and disciplinary hearings, left her to cope with stress-related sick leave and then forced her resignation due to her treatment at the hands of the council.
The mum-of-three was fighting unfair allegations made against her by her manager and a suspension by former director of community services Rob Kenyon that the tribunal described as “the worst illustration of knee jerk reaction (they) had come across.”
Michelle was accused of “disclosing information which may have undermined (her) line manager, given false representation of the council’s position and potentially put the council at risk of disrepute,” following an email exchange about the handing out of building completion certificates at Beach Retreat in Ramsgate.
Complaints had first been made by the property owner in 2015 that the then-head of building control, Geoff Musk, had issued three completion certificates on flats that were not completed.
Assurances were given by Michelle, Mr Musk and his manager Abigail Raymond that no further completion certificates would be issued without first speaking to the owner. Mr Musk retired in early 2016 and his role was taken by Chris Weller.
On November 1, 2016, Michelle was copied into an email from the property owner, Peter Brown, to say a further three flats had been issued certificates without his knowledge and an assurance from Michelle was “not worth the paper it was written on.”
Michelle replied to say she had been unaware of the certificates and that the decision would have been taken solely by her new manager Chris Weller, who she said had gone back on the decision to consult with the owner first.
Michelle was later summoned into the office of Mr Kenyon who said she was being suspended for gross misconduct because of the email. The reason, according to a later email from Mr Kenyon, was that she had disclosed information that could undermine her manager.
This was disputed by Mr Brown’s chartered surveyor who emailed to say Michelle had not disclosed anything that was not already known from meetings or correspondence with the council. The tribunal judge says this email, which backed Michelle’s case, was “suppressed” and not discovered by her until months later.
The judgment also slams Mr Kenyon, who took voluntary redundancy from the council last year, for issuing the suspension without consulting human resources due to his “personal view” and his close working relationship with Mr Weller, branding the suspension as “bordering on malicious.”
Michelle said: “I was gobsmacked. I was told I was not to communicate with any of my work colleagues and was not asked any questions about the email and the reasons for it.”
There was then a second allegation made by someone labelled as Employee X claiming Michelle had failed to declare that she had a business selling insulated panels. In fact Michelle had disclosed her business venture to her former manager, colleagues and then, on his appointment to the department, Mr Weller.
What followed was a bungled procedure where:
- The investigation took four months when policy suggests it should have only taken four weeks
- Was headed by an officer with no investigation experience.
- Michelle’s business email was handed over to the investigating officer by Mr Weller when personal contact details should have been sought from elsewhere – resulting in correspondence going to her business partner and leading to the collapse of that partnership and business.
- Vital questions were not asked and relevant people were not interviewed,
- Mr Kenyon took a role investigating the complaint by the property owner about the issuing of certificates – which he dismissed – and was involved in the investigation against Michelle despite being the person who suspended her.
- Housing boss Bob Porter chaired the disciplinary panel despite being Mr Weller’s mentor and having previously rejected the complaint about the inappropriate issuing of the completion certificates at Beach Retreat
- Witnesses and evidence about Mr Weller’s role in issuing inappropriate completion certificates were refused despite being central to events.
The judgement branded documentation of the investigation as “sparse” noted the “abject failure” to keep Michelle informed, and the “inexcusable delay” in completing the procedure. It also highlights the failure to review whether the suspension had been the correct course of action.
Michelle said: “After four months of suspension I was bewildered, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I got a Unison representative and they were dismayed. Everyone knew about my business and I believe they added that to bulk up their allegation against me.”
In March 2017 a disciplinary hearing found there was no case to answer concerning her outside business but Michelle was issued with a written warning for undermining her manager. The tribunal judge criticised this saying it had been proven that there was no disclosure of information and that the charge had been wrongly “dissected.”
The judge added: “The alternative finding of guilt (Mr Porter) made was a face saving exercise.”
An appeal hearing was also in error for “wholly ignoring whether Mr Weller might have undermined himself” (by wrongly issuing completion certificates).
A group complaint by building department staff about Mr Weller’s competence was dismissed. Mr Weller later left TDC under a confidential agreement when he faced charges, including one of inappropriately issuing a completion certificate.
Thanet council was also criticised by the tribunal judge for failing to make return to work arrangements for Michelle, for the suppression of the email backing her case which she found two days after going back to work and subsequently went on sick leave, failing to support her during this sick leave, failing to acknowledge her official submission of grievances and failing to send her an outcome for those grievances and failing to take action after a complaint that Mr Weller had breached Michelle’s confidence was upheld.
In conclusion the judge ruled that Michelle had been unfairly dismissed by Thanet council which had been unfair and blameworthy on numerous points throughout her ordeal.
The judgement was published last month.
‘I hadn’t done anything wrong’
Michelle, who now is self-employed, said: “I had felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. I couldn’t go back to working for an incompetent manager and felt I had to hand my notice in. I hadn’t done anything wrong but they had all closed ranks. It was so stressful and I couldn’t even talk to my colleagues who are all really hard-working and are also my friends.
“You don’t expect to be treated that way by a council. I work for myself now as I never want to be in that position again.
“Something needs to be done, there should now be an investigation and disciplinary action within the council.”
A further hearing will be held in February to decide on ‘remedy’ for Michelle on issues such as loss of earnings.
A Thanet council spokesman said: “”The council is reviewing the judgement and considering its position in respect of any appeal process.”
Mr Kenyon said he knew nothing about the employment tribunal until reading The Isle of Thanet News report.
He is now taking legal advice. He said: “I wholeheartedly refute any and all suggestions of wrongdoing, malice or other misconduct. The respondent in this case is Thanet District Council, which chose not to call me as a witness, or contact me at any time before, during or after the case.
“I note from the tribunal’s judgment that the council also chose not to call seven other potential witnesses. I believe that had the court had the benefit of hearing from me and others, that my actions would have been found beyond reproach.
“Whilst this may not have affected the judgment, my name would not have been unfairly tarnished. I am continuing to take legal advice and considering all the options open to me to clear my name.”
Mr Kenyon added: “I sympathise with what I’m sure must have been an extremely difficult episode for Miss Thompson and wish her all the best in her future endeavours.”