A charity has been told to pay more than £50,000 to a former helpline worker it unfairly dismissed after “putting its hands over its eyes and ears” to avoid finding out about her mental health issues.
Glasgow Employment Tribunal has ordered Rape Crisis Scotland, a charity that supports victims of sexual violence, to make the payout to Kate Graham after she was sacked in February 2020.
Graham was accused of “aggressive and bullying behaviour” against other staff and was alleged to have made a “racist” joke to back up a colleague who said it was inappropriate for a white person to attend a book group for black women.
But Graham “immediately apologised for her use of inappropriate phraseology” and “had not expressed herself in the way she normally would because of the stress she was under”.
The tribunal found the comment “was not a slip of a mask of a racist”, despite the charity’s claim that it alone amounted to gross misconduct.
The tribunal ruled that the charity carried out a “one-sided investigation” of the claims “with a view to dismissing the claimant” and conducted a “trawl” to drum up more allegations.
The charity said the judgment was full of “numerous factual errors” and that it disagreed with the outcome, but it would “reflect carefully”.
Graham was originally employed by the charity to work on its national helpline on a part-time basis from July 2007.
In 2016, the charity obtained additional funding for a new project called the Scottish Women’s Resource Centre and Graham was appointed to an additional full-time advocacy role on £30,000 a year.
The tribunal heard how Graham suffered from depression and anxiety, which are considered disabilities under the Equality Act 2010.
It ruled that Graham’s behaviour at work was affected by her conditions in the months before her dismissal, which the charity failed to properly account for and “either did or ought to have known” about her conditions.
Employment judge Amanda Jones said the charity appeared to be “simply putting its hand over its eyes and ears” to avoid learning about any formal diagnosis in order to “avoid taking action to support the claimant”.
She found: “The tribunal was extremely surprised that an organisation such as the respondent, whose services were focused on supporting women who had experienced trauma, would adopt such a position.
“The claimant made clear throughout the process that her behaviour had been impacted upon by her mental health.
“The claimant was saying that she was not well.
“It was astonishing to the tribunal that the respondent’s witnesses… could not accept that suffering from depression and anxiety could impact on the claimant’s behaviour.”
The tribunal also heard from Sandy Brindley, the charity’s chief executive.
She was judged to have operated as an “invisible hand” throughout an unfair disciplinary process, in which it had been “predetermined” that Graham would not return to her post.
Jones said: “The tribunal was very concerned at the role Ms Brindley played in the proceedings concerning the claimant… the tribunal formed the view that, consciously or otherwise, the whole process involving the claimant was influenced by Ms Brindley and her view of the claimant."
The charity said it regrets that it was unsuccessful in defending its case.
An RCS spokesperson added: “We believe that we have a responsibility to take complaints of bullying and racism very seriously and are disappointed that the tribunal did not agree with our actions in relation to these.
“The judgment contains numerous factual errors. We strongly disagree with their approach to racist behaviour, however we will reflect carefully on the judgment and consider what further steps are appropriate.
“As an organisation our absolute priority is working to create an environment where staff and volunteers feel safe, supported and able to thrive.
“We are committed to ongoing learning in this regard and will look to what more that we can do as an organisation to ensure that all of our team have the support and resources to enable this.”
The tribunal awarded Graham a total of £51,823, including more than £28,000 for unfair dismissal and an injury to feelings payment of £15,000.