An “over-promoted” medical practice manager has won a constructive dismissal case against her former employer after claiming she was bullied by a “brusque and blunt” doctor.
Mrs M Williams had worked for Meddygfa Rrhdbach Surgery for almost 30 years. She had worked as a receptionist at the north-west Wales surgery from 1986 before being promoted to practice manager in 1996. Although she was not a “trained, experienced or accomplished” practice manager when she was promoted, the judgment noted she was “well thought of” by the doctors there at the time.
From around 2009, the practice went through “what were euphemistically described as ‘challenging circumstances’” during the tribunal, including financial difficulties and the retirement of two of the partners.
The judgment noted Williams was “never very highly regarded” and considered to be “over-promoted” by the doctors who made up the practice at the time she resigned. She was described as not being a proactive or enthusiastic manager and, on one occasion, overpaid the practice’s caretaker by £12,000, although the money was recovered.
In particular, one of the doctors at the practice, Dr Smits, was described as “direct, brusque and blunt” at the tribunal and would “question, challenge and shout at” Williams.
In June 2014, Williams was called into a meeting with the surgery’s partners to discuss her performance, although she was not offered training or professional management guidance at this point.
Towards the end of 2014, the practice manager asked the partners whether she might be made redundant. Despite their misgivings about her, they were concerned they may not be able to recruit a suitable replacement. Instead, an experienced practice manager was then seconded part time to assist Williams.
However, in July 2015, Williams had a difficult meeting with the partners, which included Dr Smits raising his voice and banging his hand against a door in frustration. Williams took sick leave not long after the meeting. Although the other doctors were aware of the strained relationship between the two, the judgment noted they “valued [him] as a partner more than the claimant as an employee and they closed ranks to support him”.
The practice manager wrote to the local health board complaining of bullying the following month. She returned to work in September 2015 on a phased basis before working full time again in October and submitting a formal written grievance to the partners outlining specific examples of Dr Smits’ behaviour towards her a month later.
However, the tribunal determined the investigation into the her grievances was not conducted thoroughly, as those appointed to do so had been unduly influenced by the practice partners. Two days after receiving the outcome letter from the grievance procedure, Williams resigned, stating her trust and confidence had “completely broken down”.
The tribunal found Williams was constructively unfairly dismissed and the doctors had failed to manage Williams’ performance for some time before she resigned.
“The claimant’s performance could have been better but the respondent’s mismanaged and bullied her; despite this there were signs of improvement,” concluded Judge Ryan. “She was not given a fair chance to improve free from oppression and uncorroborated suspicion of misconduct.”
Martin Pratt, employment partner at Gordon Dadds, told People Management: “The issue was not so much as whether the claimant had been over-promoted, but how the practice handled her alleged underperformance. If they had gone down a proper performance management route, which could, if unsuccessful, have led to a fair dismissal, they would not have lost this case.”
He added that if employers fail to properly conduct performance management procedures for employees they consider to be underperforming, “issues and resentments [will be] stored up for the future”.
Pratt also urged employers to be cautious of behaving in ways that may sever the bond of trust and confidence between them and an employee. “Assertive management that crosses the line into intimidation could breach that implied term and allow a constructive dismissal claim,” he said. “Assertiveness and setting high demands are in themselves not a problem – but pushed too far then the law will step in.”
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