Kath Harmeston found guilty of misconduct in Group disciplinary, tribunal hears

Former Co-operative Group procurement director Kath Harmeston was found guilty of misconduct, but not gross misconduct, in a disciplinary hearing, an employment tribunal has heard. Ms Harmeston claims...

Former Co-operative Group procurement director Kath Harmeston was found guilty of misconduct, but not gross misconduct, in a disciplinary hearing, an employment tribunal has heard. Ms Harmeston claims she was unfairly dismissed from the Group because she exposed alleged procurement non-compliance throughout the organisation. The Group says she breached policy and it lost trust in her.

Former Group chief strategy officer Paula Kerrigan, who led a disciplinary hearing against Ms Harmeston in July 2014, found Ms Harmeston had deliberately contravened Group policy in hiring contractors Silver Lining Partners (SLP). She had failed to use suppliers checked by the procurement team or obtain three quotes, knowing she did not have the executive authority to do so, and directed her deputy Lucy Halligan to sign the agreement with SLP, putting Ms Halligan into conflict.

But Mrs Kerrigan found Ms Harmeston had not deliberately failed to get executive authority before sourcing SLP. This, she said, would have brought Ms Harmeston’s motives into question and likely led her to a verdict of gross misconduct.

Ms Harmeston maintains she did not need written authority for the engagement because she had received verbal authority from Group chief operating officer Pippa Wicks. Ms Wicks’ version of events differs.

“I believed that Kath thought she had Pippa’s authority to engage SLP,” Mrs Kerrigan said in her witness statement. “Pippa and Kath may have misunderstood each other.”

Mrs Kerrigan admitted she had not interviewed Ms Wicks but relied on a transcript of an earlier interview. Neither had she considered Ms Harmeston’s “rebuttal and disclosures” – the documents Ms Harmeston claim give her whistleblower status, and the protection it would afford.

“It seemed Kath was trying to widen the scope of the disciplinary, discredit the allegations and distract away from not following policy,” Mrs Kerrigan said. The Group maintains Ms Harmeston is not a whistleblower.

Judge Kenderik Horne asked whether, when Ms Harmeston had raised matters such as motive and inconsistency of treatment and Mrs Kerrigan had “stopped her in her tracks”, Ms Harmeston had said human resources or legal had told her she could raise these matters. Mrs Kerrigan said no.

The judge also asked whether she thought Ms Harmeston’s allegations had been gratuitous. Mrs Kerrigan said: “No… my state of mind was almost two wrongs don’t make a right. These allegations did not nullify the allegations made against Ms Harmeston.”

Mrs Kerrigan told the tribunal Ms Harmeston had been combative, challenging and aggressive during disciplinary hearings and was two hours late to the first hearing. “Kath has complained the process was rushed,” she said. “I disagree… we spent two days going over the same ground.”

She said Ms Harmeston had put her case in a “nasty” and “venomous” way. “It gave the impression that from day one Kath had been building a case against senior management,” she said. “Kath went beyond defending herself and came across as a person who wanted revenge.

“Given the personal allegations Kath made against Pippa in particular and the disdain in the way she regarded both Sam Walker [chief HR officer] and Richard Pennycook [chief executive], I’m not sure how Kath could have expected to be able to work with them again.”

Mrs Kerrigan issued Ms Harmeston with a written warning, due to the small amount of money involved and the limited scope of SLP’s work.

She added she had found Ms Harmeston “challenging to work with” before the disciplinary. Ms Harmeston’s negotiations with the Boston Consulting Group had secured lower rates but were “aggressive” and she had shared confidential documents with two members of SLP. Mrs Kerrigan also said that projected figures provided by Ms Harmeston for the Group’s banking syndicate would have represented more than 100% of the Group’s cost saving requirement, but were apparently not fit for inclusion because they “could be undermined by anyone with basic financial or procurement knowledge”.

The case continues.

More on the story:

In this article

Join the Conversation