The Co-op Group has been taken to an industrial tribunal by its former head of HR Sam Walker, who alleges she was sacked after raising an equal pay claim and warning the company of a possible gender pay gap.
Ms Walker has brought a claim of equal pay, discrimination and unfair dismissal against the Group, which will be heard over the next two weeks, according to a report in the Guardian.
She was joined by BBC journalist Carrie Gracie and Sam Smethers, chief executive of women’s rights group the Fawcett Society, at the hearing in Manchester yesterday. Giving evidence, she said she was appointed chief HR officer in February 2014.
At this time, she claimed, the Group had given pay rises to board members to stop them from leaving as it recovered from its financial crisis.
This included increases to the then general counsel, Alistair Asher, and chief external affairs officer, Nick Folland, who were paid £550,000, while Ms Walker and the then chief strategy planning officer, Paula Kerrigan, were offered a salary of around £400,000.
Ms Walker added that she raised her equal pay concerns three times with the Group’s then-chief executive Richard Pennycook, between November 2015 and January 2016.
She added in her statement: “I do not see my case simply as being about my own position. Equal pay for women generally is a matter of real importance and concern to me. I am an active member of the Fawcett Society, and am committed to the promotion of transparency and fairness for women at work.”
The Group denies the allegations brought by Ms Walker, arguing that her dismissal was related to her work performance alone. A spokesman said: “We do not accept that Sam Walker was discriminated against or treated detrimentally, and intend to fully and robustly defend the various claims brought by Sam.”
Andrew Burns QC, representing the Group, suggested she had a “very bumpy” relationship with members of the Co-op board but Ms Walker denied this, saying there had only been disagreements.
The tribunal heard that senior executives had also questioned Walker’s performance over the progress of a huge IT project called 1HR. Ms Walker said the project had not been on track since it launched, but she had brought in the “right people” to improve performance.
In her witness statement, Ms Walker said the Group had gone through a regrading exercise of staff, and she told Mr Pennycook in 2016 that it was “not looking good” in terms of equal pay.
“I told him that I thought the Co-op had an equal pay problem, which not only exposed the business to legal claims but was inconsistent with the Co-op’s declared values,” she said.
She told the tribunal she had proposed more holidays for herself so her “pro-rated pay could be equivalent to the men on the executive committee”. But she said that instead, she was told she had to accept a new, reduced role.
During the negotiations, her daughter, who is disabled, sustained a brain injury and Ms Walker was signed off sick in March 2016. She was diagnosed with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and is now on medication.
Ms Walker was told her employment had been terminated at the start of April 2016 and submitted a grievance, which was rejected a year later by the Co-op non-executive director, Lord Victor Adebowale. Walker’s appeal against that decision was rejected.
She argued in her statement that the case was not about money, but “right and wrong”.
“I’ve grown up in a man’s world, I’ve had a 28-year career with mainly just men around the table once I reached senior positions, and all the time I have been conscious that they have been paid more,” she said.
The hearing continues.