The Co-operative Group’s former procurement director misled its managers and executives when hiring a contractor she already knew, it has been claimed by the Co-operative Group at an employment tribunal. The Group says Kath Harmeston had SilverLining Partners (SLP) in mind from the start, hiring them outside proper processes and failing to disclose they had been investigated for malpractice at her previous employer, the Royal Mail Group.
Ms Harmeston claims she was unfairly dismissed because she blew the whistle on alleged procurement non-compliance across the business, including among the Group’s executives.
Andrew Pope, head of risk partnering at the Group, investigated Ms Harmeston’s relationship with SLP in the run up to her dismissal on 12 September 2014. He found Ms Harmeston had misled chief operating officer Pippa Wicks “just enough to claim it was a misunderstanding”.
Ms Harmeston claims Ms Wicks had agreed hiring SLP would be a “good idea” in a meeting on 8 May 2014. Ms Wicks’ recollection of the meeting differs.
The tribunal heard that on day four of her employment, Ms Harmeston had forwarded an email to chief executive of SLP Gerard Soames. The email, from Co-op Group chief executive Richard Pennycook, showed details of Ms Wicks’ appointment. Mr Pope said this was “of extreme interest”. “I believed that there was intent” he said.
Ms Harmeston refutes the allegations, saying Mr Soames was a “networking contact” who she had turned to for advice about her work at the Group. She maintains SLP had no malpractice case to answer.
Mr Pope admitted he had not included Ms Harmeston’s rebuttal document in his investigation, instead handing it to the group’s chief human resources officer Sam Walker without taking notes.
“You don’t have photographic memory I assume?” asked Joanne Woodward, representing Ms Harmeston. “No, I do not,” he replied.
She asked whether he had concerns about ignoring it. He replied. “No… I volunteered it. I was handing it over with good faith. Based on the content I didn’t really want it in my possession.”
He also admitted ignoring a letter sent to Group chair Alan Leighton on 1 May 2014 by an anonymous whistleblower. In it were details of how Ms Harmeston had left her job at the Royal Mail Group soon after SLP had been investigated for malpractice there. He described the letter as “irrelevant”.
It emerged that Mr Pope had flagged up potential double standards in the treatment of Ms Harmeston’s case and that of contractor Tony Lawrence, who was dismissed in May 2014. He said he had been told by director of Group risk Philip Willsmer and Pippa Wicks that it was not relevant. When asked who had shaped the investigation, he said it had been the Group’s chief human resources officer, Sam Walker.
The tribunal heard how Ms Harmeston had been “incensed at the unprofessional manner in which the case had been handled”. She was concerned about reputational damage after she had been “publicly shut off the email network” before dismissal.
Mr Pope said switching off her email had been a technical error by the IT department. “In normal circumstances we would suspend the email address, not remove it completely,” he said. But after being shown an email from him asking for Ms Harmeston’s email account to be disconnnected he admitted this had been his personal mistake.
Mr Pope said Ms Harmeston was mostly concerned with her reputation and did not know details of the company’s procurement policies. He said she had acted as if understanding and enforcing procurement compliance had been “beneath her” and had instead delegated these tasks to her team. He said he believed she was not telling the “full truth”.
The case continues.
More on the story:
- Kath Harmeston: Group could have been ‘world-class’ within a year
- Consultancy spend at Co-operative Group ‘feral’, tribunal hears
- Tribunal case hears accusations of Co-operative Group cover up
- Former procurement chief takes Co-op Group to tribunal for £5m damages