28 August 2009

Conflict of Interests

An investigation report written in 2007 by Christine Pratt begins:
"This investigation was instigated by a telephone call to the National Bullying Helpline (Charity) by [X], the complainant."
Elsewhere in the preamble, the report says:
Conflict of interest
Employment Law Solicitors will take instructions from an employee or an employer and advise them on employment matters but will not represent both parties at the same time, as this places them is a position described as a ‘conflict of interest’. HR & Diversity Management Limited operates in exactly the same way. At no time will we act for both the employee and the employer… In this case, HR&DM is acting for the employer”

Remember that when an employment situation has got this bad, the employer is the prospective (or maybe the actual) legal opponent of the employee. At that stage, the employer's solicitor's interest will focus on protecting the employer from the employee. If HR&DM operates "exactly the same way", the employee could be in for a rough ride.

It is unthinkable that someone would elicit calls for help from desperate people, identify their alleged bully, and then team up with the alleged bully.  It is so unthinkable that, even as it is happening, people cannot tell they are being taken in.  

A complaint was made about this conflict of interests to a now former trustee of the helpline.  Mrs Pratt's  reaction was to add a paragraph on the National Bullying Helpline front page, copied below. The numbers in square brackets refer to the footnotes underneath:
“Since its inauguration this helpline has been funded by HR & Diversity Management Limited, an HR consultancy established by Christine and David Pratt, who also founded this helpline (Charity). The Consultancy does not profit from the helpline - quite the contrary! The Consultancy funds the helpline entirely. [1]   This is not a Government funded helpline. The processes between the Consultancy and the Charity are open and transparant  [sic]  [2] and were vetted and approved by both Companies House and The Charities Commission when the Charity was founded. [3] Furthermore, the Charity works closely with a number of Lexel Accredited Employment Law Solicitors [4] who have also audited and approved processes in compliance with Law Society Regulations. [5]  Governing bodies and Associate Partners are satisfied that there is no conflict of interest as the relationship between the two operations are transparent and lawful.  If you are concerned about conflict of interest, or do not understand the term, please contact our Trustees. There is a complaints procedure on this website. [6] Write in with any concerns and our Trustee's will always respond. [7]
We are not a Samaratans lookalike. We help people in distress in a practical, positive, timely, way [8] and in some cases we will put callers in touch with professional service providers ; (solicitors, investigators, mediators etc).[9]  Where a fee changes hands this is declared up front. Everyone who calls the helpline is given 'open and transprent' [sic] choice - and advice and guidance to enable them to ascertain and understand both their legal options and/or statutory obligations.”  [10]

[1] This is false reassurance. Of course, on paper, it is probably true that there is a one-way flow of cash from the consultancy to the charity, in just the same way that a company’s sales department is accounted for as cost centre, rather than a profit centre.  What is not openly declared but what occurred in X's case and no doubt others, is that the helpline supplies the consultancy with new business leads.  Judging from publicity material this is not an accident, but the fundamental business model – the co-dependency of the NBH and HR&DM. Why does Mrs Pratt not declare this up front, with all its risks (as well as the theoretical benefits) in accordance with the claim to be “open and transparent”?

[2] The processes are not open and transparent. Clients are intelligent and astute, but they are not  employment lawyers. They reasonably expect the helpline’s advice to be “help” full, i.e. given in their interests. If X had understood the risks of following Ms Pratt's advice, she would not have followed it.

[3] The helpline must tell the Charities Commission that it refers clients to service providers. In Ms Pratt's case the distinction between charity and service provider is blurred, because Mrs Pratt acts for both charity and service provider, and the two share a director, a registered office and a website. In any case, the most obvious "referral" that occurred in X's case was where X (the charity's client) introduced  HR&DM to its new commercial client, X's employer.  The Companies House reference sounds impressive but is irrelevant to the conflict of interests issue.

[4] The relevant point is that the charity works closely with HR&DM. The solicitors’ internal procedures are not relevant to the NBH/HR&DM conflict of interests issue.

[5] One “Governing Body” is presumably the board of trustees. Does the Charities Commission have a view on the fact that one helpline trustee David Pratt is a director and the company secretary of HR & Diversity Management Ltd. His occupation is listed as "salesman". Which other “governing bodies” are there? Are the “Associate Partners” also businesses to whom the charity refers business? (judging from publicity material, yes…)

[6] The "complaints procedure" is: "Write to the trustees".

[7] X had no response from the trustees (now over a year ago) and the author's letter to a trustee, raising concerns about the conflict of interests, prompted the open invitation to contact the trustees if concerned about a conflict of interests. (The author hereby contacts the trustees. The author's understanding of the term "conflict of interests" is where the interests of one client conflict with the interests of another client.)

[8] A client who paid £300 up front for 3 hours time-critical work - which was never done - was not helped. The response was neither timely nor positive and was thus totally impractical. Others who contacted the author said they asked HR&DM for help (prior to April 2007), but the result was so late or substandard as to be of no use. Two were subsequently threatened with legal action if they did not pay.  

[9] In most of the cases the author heard about, people who called the helpline and alleged bullying at work were asked for the name of their employer, put under pressure to give it, and to recommend the investigation service to their employer on an HR&DM template letter. 

[10]  Engaging (or having one's employer engage) an investigator from HR&DM is neither a “legal option” nor a “statutory obligation”.

The paragraph has had its grammar edited since first publication, but it is still completely irrelevant to the point at issue. The conflict of interests remains.

Returning to the report and the line about how the investigation was instigated by a call to the National Bullying Helpline, in fairness to Mrs Pratt, here are the additional lines that Ms Pratt used to explain how she came to change sides. The opening line is followed by this:
"X enquired whether operational support could be made available and was referred to HR & Diversity Management Ltd (HR&DM) who are affiliated with the charity and who provide an independent mediation and investigation service. (HR&DM is the main sponsor of the Charity Helpline so any organisation placing business with HR&DM is indirectly supporting the Helpline). X made a recommendation to her employer [employer name], that HR&DM should be appointed. X was told that they could place the business with any HR Consultancy or Employment Law Solicitor but chose to appoint HR&DM in accordance with the terms laid down in an Agreement. The independent investigation process commenced. The investigator assigned to this case is Christine Pratt FCIPD and FCMI."

For very obvious reasons, NSPCC helpline operators do not join forces with alleged child abusers, housing helplines do not side with alleged unscrupulous landlords and rape crisis lines do not ask alleged rapists for their opinions on whether their victims were raped. This has to be a fundamental principle that any charitable helpline applies. Whatever explanations Ms Pratt may give, the fact is that a call to a charitable helpline should never progress this way.

X called the helpline because she was at her wits' end and did not know what to do. She wanted some good advice, and trusted the helpline because of its links with Cary Cooper and, at the time, Tim Field's family, and X believed they would fully understand her problem and give her the best guidance on how to deal with it. When X first rang the helpline she had not raised a grievance. She was advised that she needed to do so or she could not be helped. The "help" was an independent investigation by HR & DM. X raised the grievance and forwarded HR&DM's template letter to her employer.

Whilst superficially the offer was very appealing - an impartial investigation is exactly what a genuinely aggrieved employee wants - that was not what happened, and in the end the only person to benefit was Christine Pratt, by way of a contract for her business worth in the region of £8000 (at £100 per hour).

The author accepts that employers will engage HR specialists for a fee, and they will sometimes write reports that favour their fee-paying client. That is not the issue. The issue is that HR&DM's client was identified and introduced by a person who genuinely believed they were going to be helped, but who ultimately lost their job because helpine founder and CEO Christine Pratt's report was calculated or likely to seriously damage or destroy the relationship of trust and confidence between her employer client and employee client.



  1. In the light of Ms Pratt's involvement today in revealing her helpline to be totally partial and cynical, this makes sense.

  2. "For very obvious reasons, NSPCC helpline operators do not join forces with alleged child abusers, housing helplines do not side with alleged unscrupulous landlords and rape crisis lines do not ask alleged rapists for their opinions on whether their victims were raped."

    oh my god. this is SO spot on.
    the national bullying "helpline" should either be totally suspended altogether or handed over to people who know what they are doing.

  3. I'd recommend you complaint to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, as a member Mrs Pratt has also broken their code of conduct and can be subject to a disciplinary complaint.


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