‘I have never seen as many issues with a new recruit,’ HR chief tells Harmeston tribunal

A tribunal has heard how Kath Harmeston’s employment at the Co-operative Group was beset by “issues” from the start, according to the organisation’s human resources chief, Sam Walker. Ms...

A tribunal has heard how Kath Harmeston’s employment at the Co-operative Group was beset by “issues” from the start, according to the organisation’s human resources chief, Sam Walker.

Ms Harmeston, the Group’s former procurement director, claims the executive officers turned against her after she blew the whistle on alleged procurement malpractice. She claims unfair dismissal.

Mrs Walker told the tribunal there had been issues with Ms Harmeston from the outset, including complaints about her relocation to Manchester, the location of her desk, inappropriate use of executive meeting rooms and reluctance to share her personal assistant. She had been “shocked” when Ms Harmeston had claimed expenses while working in London, where she had a base, but admitted under cross examination this had covered meals, not accommodation.

Ms Harmeston had wanted to sit with the executive team on the ninth floor of the Group’s Manchester headquarters, rather than on the sixth floor with her team, Ms Walker said. “I suggested that she could hot desk between the two.”

She and others had been inconvenienced and annoyed by Ms Harmeston’s presence on the executive floor. “I was beginning to think that the Kath working for was not the person we thought we had recruited,” she said. “In my experience of recruiting executives, I have never seen as many issues with a new recruit.”

Kath Harmeston
Kath Harmeston

Mrs Walker had recommended Ms Harmeston be suspended after the Group received an anonymous whistleblowing letter alleging an investigation into contractor Silver Lining Partners (SLP) had led to Ms Harmeston’s departure from her previous employee, the Royal Mail Group (RMG). A contact at the RMG had confirmed this to the Group confidentially, Mrs Walker said.

“Why did you dismiss her based on confidential information without giving her the opportunity to defend herself?” Joanne Woodward, Ms Harmeston’s representative, asked Mrs Walker.

Mrs Walker said that she had made the decision to dismiss Ms Harmeston jointly with chief executive Richard Pennycook and chief operating officer Pippa Wicks, due to behavioural and performance issues, conduct that was “seriously wanting” and a broken relationship with senior management.

Mrs Walker said in her witness statement she had expected Ms Harmeston to resign. “Pippa and Richard were already talking about Kath’s replacement,” she said. “In their minds Kath’s conduct meant that it was highly unlikely that she could stay.”

The Group placed Ms Harmeston on 12 months gardening leave.

She admitted she had not involved the legal team in the investigation into Ms Harmeston’s relationship with SLP. “Taking a lawyer into the meeting could give the mistaken impression we had already concluded she was guilty,” she said.

She also admitted her junior, Sally-Anne Underwood, had mistakenly disclosed Ms Harmeston’s suspension to Simon Black at recruitment firm Russell Reynolds.

Mrs Walker said Ms Harmeston was not a whistleblower but had retrospectively characterised points she had raised as part of her job as protected disclosures. The issues she raised “were problems we knew all about before she joined and on which Kath had been briefed,” she said.

The case continues.


More on the case:

 

In this article


Join the Conversation