REVEALED: How bullying FBU leaders hounded a 66-year-old female employee and almost drove her out of her job

Liz Smith - almost hounded out of her job by bullying FBU leaders

IN 2021, this blog revealed how leaders of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had made secret ‘hush money’ payments to a string of employees who had complained of mistreatment. These employees were required to sign ‘gagging’ orders and, in many cases, details of the confidential pay-offs were withheld even from the union’s ruling executive council. One whistleblower described how, over many years, a ‘toxic’ atmosphere had taken hold at the union’s head office in London, giving rise to a stream of complaints and forcing the departure of several employees – including two national officers.  

Some FBU members might consider that heads ought to have rolled as a consequence of these disturbing revelations. At the very least, the scandal – which even reached the pages of Private Eye magazine – ought to have compelled the union’s leaders to show a bit of humility and reflect on their conduct.

Sadly, however, it seems that little has changed. For we can now bring you another revelation – one which shows the leaders of the FBU to have again acted like the worst kind of rogue employer.

What would FBU members think if they were to learn that their leadership had levelled baseless allegations against a loyal and dedicated 66-year-old female employee, suspended her from work, subjected her to a three-month-long disciplinary investigation that never had the slightest bit of merit, and left her racked with fear that she would lose her job?

Would the leadership really stoop to such levels? Isn’t that precisely the kind of unethical behaviour that trade unions exist to oppose?

You’d think so. But then you’d need to hear the story of Liz Smith.

Liz began employment with the FBU in 2003. She works as the office administrator for the Scottish region of the union. In her role, Liz provides administrative support to the regional officials at their office in Glasgow, often acting as the first point of contact for members, and helping to ensure the region functions effectively.

It is no secret that, in recent times, the Scottish region has been beset by internal strife, with various individuals and factions involved in bitter infighting. This acrimony created something of a destructive environment inside the regional office, and Liz often felt caught in the crossfire.

The frequent conflicts and tensions meant that Liz’s working environment started to become unbearable. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that she was still trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband. For a long time, she tried to persevere. But, eventually, things got on top of her and, in February 2022, she was signed off work with what her GP diagnosed as work-related stress and anxiety.

The period of absence did her good, and after three months of treatment and recovery Liz began to feel positive about getting back to her duties. So a meeting was arranged between her and the FBU’s head of human resources, Estelle Burns (who works out of the union’s head office in London), to discuss a return to work.

That meeting took place on 23 May. At the meeting, Liz was invited to speak candidly about her work situation. In particular, she was encouraged to be frank about the difficulties and challenges she had faced while working in the feud-riven Scottish regional office and how they had impacted on her health. She was also invited to say what she felt needed to improve when she returned to work. Liz spoke calmly and truthfully about all these matters.

That conversation between Liz and Ms Burns was friendly and constructive and, at the end of it, plans were put in place for Liz to make a phased return to work. Ms Burns thanked Liz for her honesty and openness, and said she would be in touch again shortly. Liz came away from that conversation feeling positive and upbeat.

Two days later, she was contacted again by Ms Burns. Liz thought this call would be about the details of her return to work. Instead, she was told by Ms Burns that things had changed. Astonishingly, Liz was informed that she was now being suspended from work pending a disciplinary investigation.

Liz was stunned. She asked what on earth she had done to warrant suspension. In reply, Ms Burns told her that, during their previous conversation, she, Liz, had happened to mention that she had been disappointed at the outcome of an internal union disciplinary hearing which had seen an official of the union who worked alongside her in the Scottish regional office debarred from holding office by the executive council. Liz counted this official as a close colleague and friend, and she felt that his treatment had been somewhat unfair.

Liz’s comments about the matter had been made in passing, and certainly not provocatively. They were a tiny part of a much wider confidential one-to-one discussion with the head of HR about all the factors that had contributed to the tensions inside the Scottish regional office – tensions which had created real challenges for Liz herself. Yet the head of HR was now suggesting that Liz’s comments about the matter in question were so serious that it was necessary to suspend her from her duties and commence a formal disciplinary investigation.

Liz felt shocked and betrayed by the development. None of it sounded right. She had been invited by Ms Burns to be totally candid during their discussion, and to talk about anything that had contributed to the challenges she had faced at work, including her personal relationships with colleagues. It was in that context that she had made her fleeting remarks about the disciplinary case involving her friend and colleague. Moreover, Ms Burns had raised no concerns at the time. On the contrary, she had, at the end of their conversation, praised Liz for her openness and honesty, and seemed extremely keen to facilitate her return to work.

So what had suddenly changed in the mind of Ms Burns? 

To anyone looking in, it seemed obvious that Ms Burns was not pulling the strings at all. Was Liz really to believe that the head of HR’s attitude had changed so dramatically within 48 hours – that she had gone from thanking Liz for her openness and honesty and expressing her eagerness to help her return to work, to now concluding that Liz had said something so seriously wrong during their conversation that she must be suspended from work and placed under investigation?

It seemed more likely that Ms Burns had reported details of the conversation to her superiors at the union’s head office, who then put pressure on her to suspend Liz from her duties and place her under a formal investigation. Maybe these superiors were outraged at the thought that an ordinary employee might ever question their decisions. Perhaps they saw Liz as ‘siding’ with someone whom they had seen fit to sanction in a disciplinary case. Or maybe they just thought more generally that Liz had taken the ‘wrong’ side in the wider power struggle inside the Scottish region.

Whatever the motivation, Liz had clearly become the victim of a witch-hunt driven by the union’s head office. It was impossible to see how her innocent remarks amounted to any sort of offence. Should employees be banned from privately commenting on the outcome of disciplinary cases involving their colleagues and friends? Don’t firefighters do this all the time around mess tables? Wasn’t Liz entitled to express her thoughts in a calm and truthful manner in a confidential one-to-one discussion with the head of HR?

The following day, Liz received a letter from Ms Burns confirming her suspension. Disturbingly, she was also informed in a follow-up email that her remarks might be seen as amounting to a breach of what is known as the ‘implied contractual term of mutual trust and confidence’. Under employment law, this term is taken to be part of all normal employer/employee contracts. The term is considered to have been breached when one party commits an act of such severity that it is likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence with the other party. When an employee is accused of having breached the term, it usually results in dismissal.

The bar for demonstrating a breach of the term is therefore a very high one. Indeed, employment judges have previously warned employers not to rely on an alleged breach of the term as a basis for disciplinary action other than where it is strictly necessary and justified. In other words, the allegation being levelled against Liz was about as serious as it gets for any employee. She was being accused of having effectively torn up her employment contract. Understandably, she now feared the sack.  

On 8 June, Liz’s representative wrote to the head of HR and pointed out that the union’s actions were heavy-handed in the extreme and ultimately indefensible. There was no justification for the suspension or the allegation that Liz had committed any sort of offence – let alone one so severe that it amounted to a breach of the contractual term of mutual trust and confidence. He asked that the suspension be lifted. The union refused.

On 14 June, an investigatory meeting took place. At the meeting, Liz was suddenly informed that the allegation regarding her comment about the internal union disciplinary case had been withdrawn. She welcomed this. However, that wasn’t the end of the matter. For Liz was also told at that meeting that she was now being investigated for a separate comment that she had made during her original meeting with Ms Burns on 23 May. In particular, Liz had mentioned during that meeting – again, quite innocently – that some issues of trust might exist between her and certain colleagues when she returned to work. This was not because of anything Liz had done personally, but simply because she felt that one or two officials incorrectly saw her as being aligned to the wrong ‘side’ in the Scottish region’s power struggle.

Liz had offered up this information quite harmlessly – almost as an aside – after being invited to be completely candid about the situation inside the Scottish regional office and in particular her personal relationships with colleagues. Yet, once again, her openness and honesty was being turned against her, and now this fresh allegation was being investigated. Once more, Liz was told that her remarks may have amounted to a breach of the contractual term of mutual trust and confidence between her and the union – again making it an allegation of such gravity that it might lead to dismissal.

As with the first allegation, Ms Burns had raised no concerns at the time Liz had made these remarks. Moreover, this new allegation was plainly nonsensical. How could innocently mentioning to the head of HR that there was the potential for workplace tensions between oneself and certain colleagues possibly constitute serious misconduct? In what way is that even an offence? Surely most employers would consider that an employee was acting responsibly in flagging up such issues confidentially with his or her superiors?   

Not inside FBU head office. The people running the union obviously considered that Liz had committed some cardinal sin and that her job and livelihood should remain under threat.

After Liz’s representative highlighted procedural defects with the suspension, the suspension was lifted. But the formal investigation continued, with the union refusing to withdraw the grave allegation that Liz had breached the contractual term of mutual trust and confidence.

During the investigation, further spurious allegations were levelled at Liz. In one case, she was forced to answer questions over the fact that she had arranged for flowers and a card to be sent to the wife of the recently-retired executive council member for the Scottish region – something that had always been done upon the retirement of senior officials within the region. In this case, the retired official happened to be a critic of the union’s national leadership, giving rise to the suspicion that the line of questioning Liz faced was motivated by crude factional politics rather than any evidence of wrongdoing on her part.

Liz remained under formal investigation for the next three months. During this period, her representative wrote to the general secretary of the union, highlighting the disgraceful treatment to which she had been subjected and urging him to intervene in the matter. He refused to do so.

Needless to say, the whole affair began to take its toll on Liz’s health, and her recovery suffered a serious setback. The prospect that she might lose her job began to cause her sleepless nights. She was living and working under a heavy cloud, and her stress and anxiety levels increased considerably.

Then, suddenly, in September 2022, she was informed by the head of HR that the investigation had concluded and there would be no further action against her. All of the allegations were dropped.

In the end, the outcome was inevitable: after all, Liz had plainly done nothing wrong, and any attempt by the union to dismiss her would (as the leadership must have known) almost certainly have been found to be unfair at an employment tribunal.

But what does it say about the union’s leadership that they were willing to subject Liz to such despicable treatment in the first place? This was an employee with 19 years’ unblemished service to the union and who was already trying to recover from a bout of work-related stress and anxiety. Yet she was put through the most appalling experience for no legitimate reason. For three months, she stood accused of the extremely serious offence of having repudiated her employment contract. In reality, she had committed no offence at all – and the union’s leadership must have known it. The suspension and investigation were demonstrably without merit from the very outset.

Observers might conclude that this was another example of an increasingly authoritarian and intolerant FBU leadership abusing their authority. It seems the leadership wanted to teach Liz Smith a lesson for having dared to quietly voice an opinion on the outcome of an internal disciplinary case. And when that particular allegation fell apart, they tried to cook up other reasons for prolonging the suspension and investigation.

In doing so, they showed themselves to be the worst kind of workplace bullies. They also broke every rule in the book. Not only were their actions in contravention of employment law (in particular the legal requirement on employers not to allege a breach of the implied contractual term of mutual trust and confidence unless it is strictly necessary and justified), but they also breached both the Acas code of practice in relation to disciplinary proceedings and the union’s own ‘Dignity at Work’ policy (which places an obligation on managers not to abuse their positions of power, or create an environment that results in employees feeling harassed or intimidated, or make threats to an employee’s job security without foundation).

That FBU leaders were willing to ruthlessly hound a loyal and dedicated 66-year-old widow with baseless allegations says much about them, and should trouble anyone who has the best interests of the union at heart.

Only last week, the union’s leadership released a statement expressing their concern at reports of bullying and harassment in the fire and rescue service, and pledging to do everything in their power to help make the workplace a safe environment for everyone. To Liz Smith – and all the other FBU employees, past and present, who have suffered mistreatment at the hands of the leadership – that pledge must seem like a sick joke.

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