The mental health charity CoolTan Arts has rejected allegations that its board members have been harassing its suspended chief executive, Michelle Baharier, in a bid to force her to resign.
Baharier founded the organisation, which offers arts activities to people suffering from mental illness, in 1991. She has been suspended from the charity since October because of allegations against her of bullying and harassment, which she denies.
An open letter criticising the London-based charity, written by Frank Wood, secretary of the Kings College branch of the union Unite, who is representing Baharier, was published online this week.
The letter alleges that a complaint by Baharier in January 2015 that she had been subjected to "intimidating and unacceptable behaviour" by a board member had been met with a "campaign of harassment" against her.
The charity confirmed that assertions in the letter that parts of this complaint, which related to a board member who has since left the organisation, were upheld.
The letter says: "Since then the board have carried out a lengthy and expensive exercise intended to force Michelle to leave CoolTan Arts."
The letter adds that disciplinary proceedings had been lodged against her in September and she had been suspended from the charity the following month without being told what the complaints against her consisted of.
Baharier then began a grievance procedure against the charity – but according to the letter, she was "unable to get a proper response" and then lodged a claim with the employment tribunal.
The letter also alleges that the charity failed to support Baharier with health and disability issues, and had behaved with a "wilful disregard for her health and welfare".
Herbie Taylor, the charity’s operations director, told Third Sector that the allegation the board was deliberately attempting to oust Baharier was "absolutely rubbish and completely untrue".
He said: "In September the board was made aware of serious allegations by staff of bullying and harassment by Michelle, and they felt they had no option but to suspend her."
He agreed that the process was taking a long time, but said this was because of grievances raised by Baharier about the disciplinary process, which were being considered before it could continue.
"We felt it was fairer to listen to Michelle’s concerns before beginning the disciplinary investigation, and that’s what we have been doing," said Taylor. He said he did not know how long the process would take.
Taylor said Baharier had been made fully aware of the complaints against her and the board had made every effort to take into consideration any disability Baharier might have and to offer her support.
He also denied claims in the letter that the charity had brought in external HR consultants specifically to "harry and frustrate" Baharier, saying the consultants had already been appointed as part of an ongoing HR review.
He said neither he nor the charity had had any contact with Wood.
Wood confirmed Baharier’s tribunal claim had been submitted and accepted, and that she would be invited to a pre-hearing to discuss the particulars of the case at a later date.
He said Baharier had not been informed of CoolTan's case against her, so it was difficult to refute.
"However, Michelle has been chief executive of CoolTan for many years and is highly respected both inside and outside the organisation," he said. "She strongly denies that she has bullied or harassed any employee and points out that the disciplinary came to light only when she was due to return to work after complaining of the failure of the board to address her grievance."