A charity worker at a regional branch of the mental health charity Mind was unfairly dismissed and victimised after reporting colleagues for mocking a physically disabled person, an employment tribunal has ruled.
The tribunal found the working environment at Mind Monmouthshire was one of “frequent bad language and banter which overstepped the boundaries of acceptability in terms of equality and diversity”, and there had reportedly been “racially and sexually offensive language and comments made that were derogatory to people with mental and physical disabilities”.
In August 2016, community outreach worker Ms C Robinson overheard and saw the manager of Mind Monmouthshire’s tenancy and supported living team, Jaime Devine, and other members of staff imitating people with physical disabilities.
Robinson contacted her line manager, Steph Thomas, and phoned one of the other members of staff involved to make them aware of what she had observed in the office.
Thomas invited Devine to a meeting with Robinson where he accepted what had happened and apologised to Robinson, but added that it was just harmless banter. Thomas asked Robinson if she wanted to make a formal complaint, but she chose not to.
The incident was raised in the housing team meeting and further discussed at Robinson’s probationary meeting on 8 September 2016, the tribunal heard. However, the following day Robinson sent an email to Thomas complaining that the issue “had not been acknowledged” and the office had just “become quieter”.
The tribunal found it was “more likely than not” that other staff in the office discovered that Robinson had raised the complaint, creating a “‘them and us’ situation, which proceeded to isolate the claimant as the one who made the disclosure”.
Robinson started a new contract with the charity on 16 January 2017 as an information, advice and assistance worker. However, she was subsequently diagnosed by an occupational health professional on 27 June with anxiety and depression, on top of a long-standing history of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Robinson told the occupational health professional that, on returning to her new role, she felt she had been “sent to Coventry” – meaning she felt ostracised by her colleagues – for reporting the incident in 2016.
Occupational health recommended she should not return to the same working environment as before and consideration should be given to an alternative work location or roles if these issues could not be addressed.
Robinson resigned from her role by way of a letter dated 1 December 2017. She presented claims of unfair dismissal, disability discrimination and whistleblowing (public interest disclosure detriment and dismissal) to the tribunal on 12 March 2018.
The tribunal unanimously ruled that Robinson was automatically unfairly dismissed for making a public interest disclosure, that she had been victimised and that Mind Monmouthshire had failed to make reasonable adjustments. In her judgment, Judge Alison Frazer said the treatment amounted to disability-related harassment under the Equality Act.
“The staff engaged in unwanted conduct relevant to the protected characteristic of disability, which created a hostile and degrading environment for the claimant,” Frazer said. “The claimant makes it clear in her witness statement that she viewed this behaviour as unprofessional and felt offended by the fact that this was happening in the context of staff who were serving vulnerable service users.”
The tribunal also found that Mind Monmouthshire failed to make reasonable adjustments, because it did not carry out the occupational health report's recommendations. Instead, the tribunal found Mind Monmouthshire had “required the claimant to undergo a grievance procedure”.
A spokesperson for Mind said the organisation was “appalled” by the “reported behaviour of certain staff” at its Monmouthshire branch. The spokesperson added that local branches of Mind were “independent charities in their own right that affiliate to the Mind brand”, saying the charity was made aware of the incidents only by means of a complaint in 2018.
"As the issue was already being taken to tribunal, it was not appropriate for us to investigate,” the spokesperson added.
“We are confident that Mind Monmouthshire is now a robust organisation that meets our quality standards, but we will continue to take seriously any feedback about our local Minds via our complaints procedure and whistleblowing hotline.”
A version of this story first appeared on Third Sector’s sister title, People Management