30 August 2009

Disciplined for raising a grievance?

"During 2006 32% of the complaints investigated by HR&DM were found to be vexatious." 
- source: HR&DM

The "Employees" page of the National Bullying Helpline website says:
"SUSPENDED For raising a Grievance? Call us today.

"DISCIPLINED For raising a Grievance? Call us today.
These possibilities are presented as if they amount to bullying, something the helpline can help you address.

Employee X phoned the helpline because she believed was being bullied, and they advised her to put her grievance in writing to her employer. She then introduced the helpline operator to their next customer (her employer) in the belief that an "independent investigation" was her best option. At the end of the investigation, the helpline operator recommend that X be suspended and disciplined - for raising a grievance, and for keeping a journal of her experience.

Tim Field’s book “Bully In Sight” has a chapter entitled “What to do if you are being bullied”. One of the pieces of advice is:
- “Contact a bully helpline or support line” p.245
- “Keep a Journal. Write a journal or diary of everything that has happened and is happening to you. Include dates, times places, etc where known, what the bully said or did, how you felt … very soon the sheer size of the journal will speak louder than the contents. Keeping a record is VERY important – as well as a cathartic exercise, it will help clarify and clear your thoughts, and also form the basis of your case if you go to tribunal or court.” p.247
- “Keep your journal secure” p.247
X had already kept a journal as advised in Field's book.  The HR&DM "What To Do" guide gives similar advice, in a "list of tips and recommendations to assist you if you believe you are being bullied":
"4. Start to keep a diary.  Record every incident in factual terms; name, date, what happened and who was present.  Do not spend your working hours making diary entries but ensure you keep it up to date in your own time, and on a regular basis.  Ensure the content is kept confidential, preferably at your home address.  Do not remove original documents belonging to your employer."
The HR&DM "Step by step guide" repeats the advice in these terms:
"You should start to consider your defence. What do you think actually happened? Write it down as soon as you can. Our memories can play tricks and you don’t want to say at a later stage ‘Well I think this is what happened.’ You will present a very weak response to the accusation.  Keep a record of everything.  Start a diary and make notes of discussions you have at work relating to the issues being raised.  Concentrate not on ‘what you know’, but ‘what you can prove’ !"
All this is sound advice from Christine Pratt, and X had followed it. In Mrs Pratt's investigation report, referring to X's diary, she wrote:-
“X admits she started a comprehensive diary … in an endeavour to build a documentary case against [the employer]. X was deliberately, and calculatingly it seems, developing a legal case against her employer. X has told the investigator she will appeal and will pursue matters legally , if she has to. At Director level this is most serious. X’s own credibility and trustworthiness must be an important issue today in the eyes of her employer. Bringing disrepute to the business and ‘abuse of power’ are actions which should be addressed under the organisations disciplinary policy.”[sic]
Mrs Pratt's advice to people who think they are being bullied is "keep a compreshensive diary", and yet when she investigated a grievance of someone she had personally advised, she told the employer that keeping the diary was misconduct.  How serious was the misconduct? Well, taken with a number of other allegations Mrs Pratt levelled at X in the report, it was gross misconduct. She wrote that X's "... Grievance in general terms is believed to be, largely, vexatious"[sic]  Towards the end of the report was a heading "Conduct / Disciplinary" under which she wrote:
"X's conduct needs to be addressed under the disciplinary procedure on her return to work. Indeed it may be prudent to Suspend her [sic]. X has caused significant damage to the smooth running of operations and she has played a role in bringing disrepute to the CEO and the Board. This is a Gross Misconduct matter. The outcome of a disciplinary should not be pre-determined. Follow [your in house Disciplinary policy]. The HR Manager and [one director] should initiate matters. The CEO and [another director] shold have no part in the process. If X Appeals, consider involving a trustee and and external HR Consultant or Employment Law expert."

Thus, the National Bullying Helpline founder and CEO Christine Pratt herself recommended suspending and disciplining one of her "charity's" own clients for doing exactly what her "charity" helpline advises. 

In the context of giving examples of what is bullying at work, the helpline website ACTUALLY SAYS this:

"If you have complained about the way you have been treated at work and it has led to 'less favourable treatment' (which may be discrimination), harassment or any of the above, call us now!"

The helpline does not disclose anywhere that Mrs Pratt could do the same to other callers who  refer HR & DM to their employer in the hope it with solve their problem. However, there is a clear risk: The process that led to Mrs Pratt's condemnation of X is promoted on the HR&DM/NBH website:
"HR & DM bullying and harassment investigations are based on a tried and tested model (a formula which is the copyright of HR & DM). We have been investigating issues of this nature - and advising management on issues of this nature, for over a decade."
"During 2006 25% of cases found that the instigator, the alleged victim, was in fact, the bully"

Was X guilty of bullying? The author (I am not "X") is completely satisfied she was an innocent target of bullying well before HR & DM got involved. However, that is not the issue.  The issue is that this is a registered charity offering help to callers believing themselves to be in a particular predicament. If the helpline operator believes they are not in that predicament, they should leave things there. They do not have to ruin callers' career prospects.

29 August 2009

Video: One perspective of the HR function

A pair of alleged former Human Resources managers tell of their purpose in the business and of their methods.
Taken from Annabelle Gurwitch's first-person documentary on getting the axe, "Fired"   Any similarity to any person, organisation or event is entirely coincidental.

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.


27 August 2009

Workplace Bullying or Firm Management?

The National Bullying Helpline website does not publish a definition of workplace bullying, the closest thing being an article for employees which describes it as a "fact of life", and something that "takes many forms" with "... a cumulative effect which builds into a much more serious situation."  A clear definition makes it reasonably easy for a person to know whether they are being bullied or bullying someone else, and it helps an investigator explain the basis of their recommendations.

The absence of a definition can result in one person thinking they are being bullied, while another person thinks they are not. Helpline founder and CEO Christine Pratt has herself been in this situation. In 2005 she described her experience to the Wiltshire Gazette:
"I was bullied for two and a half years by a senior level manager. He took it upon himself to belittle and publicly humiliate me, to the point where I had to take leave of work and suffered a breakdown. It was a terrible experience that no-one should have to go through. When the bullying started I thought I would be strong enough but after a while it really breaks you down. I felt like I couldn't cope and had a breakdown."

That wasn't how the Southampton Employment Tribunal saw Ms Pratt's work for an automotive component manufacturer. They concluded that, after her employer had appointed a new General Manager, Ms Pratt made no secret of her disagreement with the decision:
"From the moment Mr Roberts took up his post as General Manager, [Ms Pratt] did not attempt to hide the hostility she felt towards the new appointee. She was obstructive and unco-operative and made no attempt to work with Mr Roberts, who was new to the organisation. In the evidence, there are many illustrations of [Ms Pratt's] aggressive and confrontational approach to Mr Roberts ….."
The Employment Tribunal considered Ms Pratt had sent a note to Mr Roberts that was "discourteous and hostile" and sent further memoranda unreasonably critical of Mr Roberts to [senior managers], which the Tribunal considered to be "aggressive, accusatory and confrontational".  They also considered as "inappropriate" her behaviour in a meeting with senior managers where, during the course of the meeting, she complained that Mr Roberts failed to communicate with her. She went over to where Mr Roberts was sitting:
"thrust her face into his and screamed "Communicate!" very loudly and directly into his ear. Mr Roberts found this very painful and was profoundly shocked by her conduct."
Ms Pratt appealed the tribunal judgment but was unsuccessful. The Employment Appeal Tribunal decision published in October 2003 includes a concise summary of the facts found by the employment tribunal.

It is hard to believe that two such diverse accounts could be drawn from the same experience.

24 August 2009

Reasons not to go for an independent investigation

The National Bullying Helpline (Charity) is inextricably linked to HR & Diversity Management Limited (a commercial business). They were both set up by the same person, Christine Pratt. One client received and followed her advice after calling the National Bullying Helpline which resulted in Pratt, through HR & Diversity Management Ltd, working for her client's employer and writing a report that condemned her client. This post spells out some of the reasons the client fell for it:

Under the section for Employees, the NBH website says:
"Would you rather have an independent investigator look into your grievance or appeal - or a manager at work? If you want to request an independent, impartial, investigation - call us."
Bear in mind the National Bullying Helpline does not conduct investigations - these are done by HR & Diversity Management Ltd. So the National Bullying Helpline is promoting the commercial services of HR & Diversity Management Ltd. The latter is neither a charity, a trade union nor a law firm, and it is not authorised (by the Ministry of Justice under the Claims Management Regulations 2006) to advise individuals on their potential claims.

If you call the National Bullying Helpline for advice because you think you are being bullied at work, you may be told that you need to write out your grievance and give it to your employer, and that the fairest way to have your grievance dealt with is for HR & Diversity Management to conduct an independent investigation. If you're lucky, you'll be advised by the CEO and founder, Christine Pratt. You will likely be sent some printable material including a "what to do guide" and a "step by step guide".

The “What To Do Guide” says:
"If your employer does not agree to an Independent Investigation it is likely they have something to hide. As a final resort you should consider the recommendations contained in the FREE Step By Step Guide issued by the National Bullying Helpline (HR & Diversity Management Ltd). Your statutory rights are explained fully in this document."

The step by step guide includes this advice:

"If you still need help, before invoking a Tribunal claim or instructing a solicitor, consider using us as a Third Party Dispute Resolution Service. The DTI recommend this approach (See Page 20: Michael Gibbons Review). We have helped resolve many situations through an employee going to their Executive Management and asking for an independent investigation into their dispute/grievance. Most of our work is done in this area and we have proved extremely successful in ‘taking the heat out of a situation’ and persuading both the employer and employee to settle out of Court. Talk to someone you trust at work, at a senior level, and recommend this as a ‘way forward’. Generally, employers will welcome a positive approach to a problem and by recommending this service you will acquire a real feel for whether your employer is a ‘caring’ employer, or not."

Bearing in mind that you probably rang the helpline because you were out of ideas, you might be persuaded that this is a good idea. If you are, you'll be sent a template letter complete and send to your employer. In 2007 the letter included these words:

"Following my letter / grievance letter submitted on …… (provide some details), I have been feeling increasingly unwell and have now been signed off work for Work Related Stress by my GP for a period of ….. The treatment I am enduring presently is making me feel unwell.

"I would therefore like to formally request that you authorise/ instigate an independent investigation or mediation in respect of concerns I have regarding my employment situation. This approach is less confrontational than a formal process as both parties may be able to reach an amicable solution.

"I have identified a Company, HR & Diversity Management Limited (HR&DM) who specialise in providing a complete Dispute Resolution service (both independent investigations and/or a mediation service). I ask that you now authorise this company to assist in this case..."

The letter goes on to set out the virtues of HR&DM, whose portfolio was provided to complete the introduction. This is not the same as you being referred to one of the charity's "sources of help" of which it says HR & Diversity Management is just one. In fact it is the opposite. By sending this letter to your employer you are in fact referring HR & Diversity Management Ltd to your employer.

It is implicit that if you call a charity that calls itself the "National Bullying Helpline", you will be helped. It is implicit that the worst they could do is say "sorry, we cannot help you". The very last thing you would expect is that the helpline operator would team up with the person or organisation you feel is bullying you. So, if you are sure you have been bullied, and when the registered charity has advised you that this investigation is in your best interests, you would only recommend them in the belief that your grievance will be upheld. You would never recommend them if they told you that YOU might turn out to be the bully - would you?

The selling point that the National Bullying Helpline makes to you is probably quite different from the selling point they make to your employer. HR & Diversity Management's web site says:

"At HR&DM we have designed a model which ascertains, very early on, whether an employee grievance is vexatious or not. This model also assists employers with their line of defence as it identifies where policies need reviewing and where training or diversity initiatives are required to ensure problems do not occur again."

"Use a Third Party to Investigate cases of Grievance where you suspect Bullying or Harassment has taken place. An acceptance of a third party decision by an employee, is far less expensive than an internal decision which is not accepted by the employee who takes the case to an Employment Tribunal." [HR&DM's emphasis]

HR & DM's "bullying business" investigations page also tells employers is this:
"During 2006 25% of cases found that the instigator, the alleged victim, was in fact, the bully."
 The same firm's "bullying business" statistics page says:
"During 2006 32% of the complaints investigated by HR&DM were found to be vexatious."

These statistics are not backed up by data but the claim that HR & DM's investigation process "assists employers with their line of defence" is probably not something that is said to people who call the National Bullying Helpline. At least it isn't in large print until HR & DM writes it in their "investigation report".

If your employer is lucky, the investigation will be done by HR & Diversity Manangement's founder, former MD and HR management expert Christine Pratt - the same person who advised you when you rang the National Bullying Helpline.

SO... What do you do if you call the helpline, feeling bullied, recommend the investigation services to your employer and you're then deemed to have committed gross misconduct by doing what the helpline advises? (blog post on this topic to follow) If you have any energy, who do you get in touch with? The Helpline or HR & Diversity Management Ltd?

The National Bullying Helpline website says:

"There is a complaints procedure on this website. Write in with any concerns and our Trustee's will always respond." [sic]
So you search the website and find a section headed “COMPLAINTS POLICY” which says:
"If you have any complaints about our Charity, or any members of our staff, please write to the registered office of our Charity at 29 Devizes Road, Swindon, SN1 4BG. Mark your letter for the attention of The Trustee's of The National Bullying Helpline." [sic]
As policies and procedures go, that is quite short. Note that the NBH shares the registered office with HR & DM Ltd, and Christine's husband David is a director of both. It's also their home address.

If you complain that the NBH is being used as a front to gain business for HR & DM, the trustees may determine that your concerns are outside the remit of the charity, and say you should refer your complaint to the Directors of HR and Diversity Management Ltd. If you do that, they may say that you were not their client. If you write to the Charities Commission, they will probably ask the trustees to investigate. If you write to the Claims Management Regulator, they will say HR&DM is not providing regulated services, and the NBH is exempt from the regulations.

In other words, if you call the National Bullying Helpline for help, because you believe you're being bullied at work, and you follow their advice, they might tell your employer that you are the bully, call your grievance vexatious, and leave you in a worse position than when you started, with no comeback at all. That's why this blog is here.