Football club charity worker who clashed with owner was victimised, tribunal rules

The former employee of Colchester United's Football in the Community charity was involved in a foul-mouthed row with the club's owner and chair

An employee at a football charity was victimised amid a number of grievances and a foul-mouthed argument with the chairman of a connected lower league football club, an employment tribunal has concluded.

The tribunal heard how Robbie Cowling, chairman and owner of the League Two club Colchester United, claimed he had been “headbutted” by Mark Harris, a community development officer at the club's Football in the Community charity, according to the judgment, published last week.

Cowling, who is also the chair of the charity, argued with Harris after a grievance meeting following his dismissal in April 2019, the judgment says.

In footage of the row, which was caught on CCTV, the pair can be seen swearing at each other in a corridor, where Harris claims Cowling called him a “f***ing c***”.

Cowling alleges Harris “head-butted” him, but the CCTV footage shows Harris “barging into him, stomach first”, the ruling says.

Both men complained to the police.

Harris lodged a grievance in May 2019, which was dismissed on 13 July of the same year, but an appeal took place.

He told the tribunal his first 10 months at the charity “went well” until December 2018, when he supported a female colleague who resigned at her grievance meeting.

The tribunal found the attitude of Harris' boss Corin Haines, the charity's chief executive, toward him changed after that.

Haines then dismissed Harris on 5 April 2019, alleging his role was “not viable” because the traineeship programme Harris was organising, which was said to be necessary to provide the income needed to pay him, was no longer going to take place.

This was despite Harris’ role never before being linked with a project’s costing or financial return, the tribunal was told.

Harris said Haines used this as an excuse to sack him, the judgment shows.

Harris also asked for an apology from Haines and compensation to be agreed for two former colleagues who had left the charity, stating he would not discuss his own compensation until theirs was agreed.

Employment judge Paul Housego found the real reason Harris was dismissed was because he had helped his former colleague.

He ruled: “There is... a causative link between Mr Harris helping (the colleague) at a grievance meeting, which was partly about discrimination (both disability and gender), causing Mr Haines’ attitude towards Mr Harris to worsen, leading him to ringfence Mr Harris in the traineeship programme, and to use its failure to dismiss Mr Harris as ‘not viable’.”

The judge added: “Neither Mr Harris nor Mr Cowling come out of this episode with any credit. Mr Harris appeared the more ashamed of the two about the incident.”

The tribunal ruled that Harris had been victimised by dismissal because of the protected act of supporting his colleague.

The judgment says a further hearing will be arranged to decide on how much compensation Harris should be paid.

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