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Female employees known as ‘birds’ at ‘laddish’ council, tribunal hears

Male employees referred to women as ‘birds’ and labelled one female colleague a ‘fatty’ as a “laddish, locker-room culture” took hold at a large council, an employment tribunal has heard.

Karen Whitmore, a former senior officer at Middlesbrough Council, is claiming unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination at the tribunal. She linked the issues to the appointment in 2014 of a new chief executive, Mike Robinson, who she said introduced the more ‘laddish’ culture.

Whitmore claimed she was bullied by current chief executive Tony Parkinson and undermined by Robinson – who has since retired – and said her concerns and complaints were ignored by the mayor, David Budd.

She said she was made redundant from her role as monitoring officer in June 2016 after experiencing bullying from colleagues, and was threatened when she raised concerns over some of the council’s property deals. She described the way her complaints were handled as a “flawed process”.

Whitmore cited a number of incidents, including a colleague referring during a meeting to using aftershave or perfume instead of showering as a ‘Portuguese shower’. Robinson referred to a female employee as ‘fatty’, she said, and often made “crude jokes”.

He also allegedly made a Nazi-style salute in response to another colleague, and when appointing two new female employees referred to them as ‘posh birds’.

Teesside Magistrates Court heard that when Whitmore raised these issues with Robinson on behalf of the women he referred to, he emailed her saying that it “wasn’t his style” to behave in that manner. The colleague Robinson allegedly called ‘fatty’ approached Whitmore at a later date expressing her distress that Robinson was “blanking her”, she added.

Robinson denies the allegations and the existence of a laddish culture. He denied calling anyone ‘fatty’ but said he could not remember if he made any other comments “in jest”.  

A solicitor acting for the council quoted one of the employees called a ‘posh bird’ and said she had used the term to describe herself and had not made a complaint about the remarks.

The tribunal heard allegations from Whitmore of a cover-up regarding the sale by the council of Acklam Hall and other properties. The Grade II-listed hall was purchased for £1.2m after the Department for Communities and Local Government received a complaint about alleged improper dealing to reduce its price.

Robinson said: “[Whitmore and I] had a conversation about illegality and corruption. I asked [Whitmore] to look into the sale of Acklam Hall and any possible illegality or corruption – if there was, we would take appropriate action. She said: ‘I think this is a good idea because we need to protect the council from those allegations.’”

An independent audit that took place in 2016 raised questions about the processes around some of the sales, but found no wrongdoing on the part of the council.

Budd will today (24 March) give evidence at the tribunal. The hearing continues.

Added: 31-03-2017

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