• Mid Essex Hospital Services Trust loses employment tribunal claim against head of HR
  • Trust was restructuring as part of Mid and South Essex University Hospitals Group
  • But two other heads of HR lose claim, with judge saying they did not accept alternative roles to trigger large redundancy payments

A hospital trust involved in a merger with two other trusts has lost the second employment tribunal claim brought by a redundant senior manager this year.

Mid Essex Hospital Services Trust unfairly dismissed one of its heads of HR, a judgment released last week revealed.

Cathrona Leeke won her case over complaints about how the HR function was being restructured as the trust worked towards a full merger with neighbours Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Foundation Trust and Southend University Hospital FT.

In January, the trust lost a claim against a director whose redundancy it mishandled as part of the same process.

Ms Leeke and two other HR heads at the trust brought claims, although her colleagues’ claims were dismissed by the East London Employment Tribunal.

The judgment said the three of them had worked closely together and distrusted the process around the new structure being led by the group HR director. There were disputes around what was considered a suitable alternative role in the group.

Ms Leeke won her claim because the trust failed to offer her an alternative position that would have been equivalent to her own. 

However, the judgment added she had partly contributed to her situation because she refused a senior HR lead role and, while she was not offered an interim head of HR role, she was aware of the job and did not apply for it. This means any award made at a remedy hearing will be reduced by 50 per cent.

Employment judge Burgher said: “The claimants believed that the consultation process [around the new structure] was a sham and that their dismissals were predetermined.”

However, he added: “[They] did not approach the consultation process with a co-operative mindset. Matters may have turned out very differently had they done so.”

Ms Leeke and her two colleagues had submitted a joint grievance to group chief executive Clare Panniker in 2017 after discovering their equivalents at Southend and Basildon were paid more.

They also brought a grievance that the jobs they were later offered were not equivalent to the ones they held. Part of the complaint was that the new job title would not include the word “manager”.

The trust convened a panel with an outside HR director in 2018 who said the jobs were equivalent.

Ms Panniker decided this meant the trio’s grounds for refusing alternative jobs were unreasonable. The implication of this was that they would not be entitled to redundancy payments.

The two heads of HR who lost their case had already secured other jobs, the tribunal heard.

The judgment said of one of them: “The amount of redundancy payment [they] would be entitled to if made redundant, of £71,404, was also significant in her refusing the alternative role.

“She had secured a better paid job outside the trust and sought to ensure that this payment was made. Accepting the senior HR lead role would not have resulted in such a payment.”

Of the other unsuccessful claimant, the judgment said: “I conclude [she] unreasonably refused suitable alternative work. She adopted a closed mind to this alternative.

“Her judgment about the suitability for the senior HR lead role was clouded by the external role she had accepted, the large redundancy payment she had hoped to receive and her negative feelings towards Ms [Mary] Foulkes [the former group director of HR].”

The judge said he had “no doubt” Ms Leeke would have accepted the senior HR lead job she was offered if her colleagues had done so too.

He said: “Mrs Leeke was conflicted, she wished to remain working in the trust but did not wish to break ranks from her close working team.”

A remedy hearing for Ms Leeke is due this week.

A spokeswoman for the trust said: ”The trust defended the position which was brought against the Trust by three ex-employees. Each of the ex-employees brought three claims against the trust, and of these nine matters, the judge found in favour of Mid Essex Hospital Services Trust in eight of these claims.

“With all such cases, the Trust reflects on the matters being determined to continuously improve practice.”