February 2011

The know zone

  • Crashing the system
    The difficulties that can ensue when a member of staff will not accept the authority of managers are highlighted in a startling case involving a school and an IT technician, says Richard Bird. More
  • Hotline
    The ASCL hotline is a completely confidential service available to answer membersí questions on issues that arise in school/college. More
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    The UK workforce took 180 million sick days in 2009, according to the latest CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey. Thatís the equivalent of 6.4 days per person. More
  • Teach the world
    Education charity Think Global helps schools to examine world poverty, climate change, sustainability and other matters of universal importance. More
  • No such thing as a free lunch?
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The difficulties that can ensue when a member of staff will not accept the authority of managers are highlighted in a startling case involving a school and an IT technician, says Richard Bird.

Crashing the system

A court case involving insubordination, suspension and counter-claims of racism contains a multitude of warnings for managers in dealing with difficult employees.

The main protagonist in this case was a man of African-Caribbean heritage. This is relevant only in that it enabled him to claim that every reaction his actions provoked was racist or, in the case of the school, institutionally racist.

He held a PhD and applied for the post of IT technician. The school thought he was over-qualified but appointed him anyway.

Within two years it became clear that he was too arrogant to take instructions, particularly from his female head of department. This ended when he directly refused a request to fill in for another technician who was on sick leave.

The school found a novel way of dealing with insubordination. It promoted him, gave him a role in setting up the administrative network and asked him to write his own job description. About the same time it appointed another technician at a lower grade. The protagonist demanded line management responsibility for him.

A year later, the head of the IT department was obliged to send him a formal note, demanding that he stop interfering with the work of other staff . His reaction was aggressive and dismissive to the point that she made a formal complaint to the governors, citing their duty of care to her.

Too trusting

Perhaps too trustingly, she allowed the head to persuade her not to include the failures of the SLT as part of her complaint. The protagonist immediately fired off a series of complaints of his own and the ensuing investigation went nowhere.

She renewed her complaint and the governors decided to try mediation. As the Appeal Court judge said, what was needed was for him to be told he had to do what he was told by the head of IT. Mediation went nowhere.

Another year of conflict later and the school appointed an external investigator. The head of department and another member of staff were off sick and the head of department sent a note to the cover technician, alerting her to the strains within the department.

The protagonist was found reading it. The tribunal concluded he must have taken it out of the cover technicianís handbag.

Four years after all this began the school asked him to attend a meeting. He refused, counter-claiming again. The external investigator was reintroduced and advised the school that the past events could not be acted on as no record had been kept.

However, enough followed to make it possible for the school to suspend him. His response was aggressive. He refused or failed to attend meetings and launched counter-complaints.

Three years later and after an abortive attempt had been made to involve arbitration, he resigned. He claimed constructive dismissal and racial discrimination. He lost. He went to the Employment Appeal Tribunal. He lost. He applied to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal. He lost.

However, the view was expressed that had he been properly advised he might have succeeded with a claim for constructive dismissal because of the three years of suspension.

Clear protocols

The lessons of this extraordinary affair scream, rather than stand, out. Incidents that may lead to disciplinary proceedings need to be recorded.

It is not advisable to ask a subordinate to write his own job description when line management authority is an issue. The school compounded this error by subsequently asking the head of IT to produce a management chart. It contradicted the job description but the school did not act to resolve this.

Management must not back down to aggressive staff. Similarly, mediation is useless where there is a refusal to accept authority. In this case, mediation was the governorsí idea. Sadly, well-meaning governors can sometimes make things worse. There should be clear protocols for when governors become involved in staff discipline and they should be adhered to.

Race is no cover for outrageous behaviour and management should not shy away from dealing with insubordinate or aggressive behaviour because they may be accused of discrimination.

Suspension is not a risk-free way of parking an issue. Had the protagonist been better advised, a three-year suspension might have been the basis for a successful claim.

Finally, one wonders about the quality of advice received by the school. The more intractable the situation, the better the advice needs to be. If the advice you are getting isnít helping, change your adviser.

  • Richard Bird is ASCLís legal consultant

Crashing the system