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Tribunal win for business manager demoted to doing officey things

A school business manager has successfully won her claim for unfair dismissal after she was demoted to a role carrying out “officey things”.

Zena Dickenson, who managed 15 staff at Easington Lane Primary School in County Durham and controlled a budget of £1.2m, became concerned that the school’s projected income would not be reached because of a funding shortfall, the employment tribunal at North Shields County Court heard.

After mentioning to a colleague that this shortfall could result in redundancies, Dickenson, who had worked for the school for 21 years, was suspended from her managerial role in December 2015. According to her suspension letter, the action was taken for discussing her concerns with a colleague, rather than with the senior leadership team.

After the case was referred to a governor’s disciplinary panel, Dickenson’s suspension was lifted and the school took no formal action.

Dickenson returned to work in February 2016. However, the tribunal heard she was stripped of her business manager role and was “expected” to work in the main reception office and update the school’s databases, until a performance improvement plan had been initiated.

The business manager claimed another member of staff had told her that, once the databases had been updated, she would be able to get on with “officey things”.

Dickenson added that she lost her line management duties and claimed that some of the staff she had previously managed were told to report to someone else.

She told the employment tribunal that she felt she was “left with no choice” but to leave, and resigned in April 2016 on the grounds that her suspension was unnecessary and unfair.

Edward Legard, the barrister representing Dickenson, argued that there was never any basis for a disciplinary investigation and that her return to Easington Lane Primary School was “reprehensible”, because she was stripped of all of her managerial duties without discussion.

The employment tribunal unanimously concluded that Dickenson’s treatment on her return to the school was a breach of “mutual trust and confidence”.

Judge Shepherd, who oversaw the case, ruled that Dickenson’s suspension was “inappropriate and unreasonable”.

Chris Cook, head of employment and immigration and partner at SA Law, told People Management: “Contractual terms should not be changed or varied unilaterally by the employer without prior consultation and agreement from the employee, failing which there is significant risk of a constructive unfair dismissal situation arising.

“Therefore demoting [Dickenson] on her return to work without warning, discussion or consent was ‘reprehensible’, and such actions and treatment breached the implied term of mutual trust and confidence.”

Dickenson’s entitlement to compensation will be determined at a further hearing. Although the tribunal found that Dickenson had been unfairly dismissed, her additional claims for direct age discrimination and harassment were not successful.

The governing body of Easington Lane Primary School declined to comment on the case.