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Interim CEO unfairly dismissed after whistleblowing about his replacement’s CV

Employers should take whistleblowers seriously regardless of seniority, said Protect's director of policy

An interim CEO of Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust was unfairly dismissed after raising concerns about the CV of the person appointed as their permanent replacement, a tribunal has ruled.

Stephen Murdoch, originally the charity’s COO, was appointed as interim CEO in February 2021. 

Although trustees at Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust praised Murdoch’s performance, they decided not to appoint him as permanent CEO due to his “relative lack of experience both as a charity fundraiser and as a chief executive in the charity field”.

After the role was advertised externally, the unnamed successful candidate ‘Mr X’ applied. 

Mr X’s CV stated that he had been employed by another charity from April 2013 to August 2017 as director of fundraising and communications, but the tribunal heard that was misleading because he took voluntary redundancy on 19 December 2016.

He had also misstated one of his job titles as ‘director of fundraising’ when he did not work at director level and his role was ‘head of fundraising’.

Mr X had also stated that he grew the income for the other charity from £1.1m to £2.9m in three years, but the tribunal heard that the charity's turnover had only increased to £1.46m in that time.

At another charity that Mr X recorded on his CV as having worked for, he stated that he was responsible for an annual income of £19m. That was the income level in the six months before Mr X’s employment started; during his employment the income fell to annualised figures of £15.8m and £9.8m for the following two years. 

After Mr X’s appointment was announced, Murdoch’s personal assistant said that she recognised Mr X’s name from the staff announcement because of an issue regarding an auction prize that Mr X had offered for Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust’s summer ball in 2017.

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Mr X had never provided the auction prize he promised, meaning that the charity had to refund the disappointed bidder (who was a major donor).

Tribunal documents show a trustee at the charity had emailed other trustees saying that he did not think the inaccuracies would have made any difference to the employment process.

The claimant submitted a whistleblowing email that alleged that the making of an unconditional offer of employment without having made appropriate employment checks was potentially a failure to exercise reasonable skill, care and diligence.

An independent investigator was appointed to look into the whistleblowing claims, but the tribunal found that the unnamed successful candidate was confirmed as CEO before the investigation had concluded.

Murdoch was told that the chair of the board was “disappointed” in him for choosing to raise a formal whistleblowing complaint and that his actions could lead to a breakdown in trust and confidence between him and the board of Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust.

Murdoch declared his unhappiness and his intention to resign, saying that he could not trust the board, did not trust Mr X and was not prepared to work with him, according to the tribunal.

The tribunal ruled that the charity subjected Murdoch to unlawful detriments on the grounds that he had made protected interest disclosures.

It also ruled that he was constructively unfairly dismissed, and found there was a 75% chance that he would have resigned had the charity not breached his contract.

Compensation will be agreed at a separate hearing.

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Emma Thompson, head of employment at law firm Thackray Williams, said that the fact a claimant may have other motives for whistleblowing does not necessarily mean that they didn't think it was in the public interest to disclose the information.

She said: "The tribunal found that Murdoch's disclosure was in the public interest because it was related to the recruitment of the CEO of a charity serving the population of Cornwall and many visitors to the county, and the conduct of the chair and/or trustees of that charity.

"Suggestions of a conflict of interest arising because of the interim nature of Murdoch’s role did not negate the genuine concern he held about the inaccuracies which existed on the permanent CEO’s CV."

"This case demonstrates that the existence of a whistleblowing policy, which encourages openness in the event of wrongdoing, will be insufficient if the individual blowing the whistle is not protected from detriment.”

Andrew Pepper-Parsons, director of policy at Protect, said that whistleblowers should be taken seriously irrespective of their seniority in an organisation.

He told HR magazine: “It’s really important for employers to be open to hearing from anyone in their organisation irrespective of their level or seniority or role. Whistleblowers are the eyes and ears of an organisation, and can be a much more effective alarm system to wrongdoing than audit or compliance processes.”

Pepper-Parsons added that once a whistleblower has shared their concerns employers need to think carefully about how they will investigate.

He said: “Best practice advises setting clear expectations and parameters for communication and regularly checking in with the whistleblower to ensure they’re not left or forgotten. Whistleblowing can be an incredibly isolating and scary experience, and this can be exacerbated if a whistleblower is kept in the dark throughout the investigation process."

A spokesperson from the Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust said that the charity had asked for corrections on the judgement, and confirmed that it is waiting for a response. 

Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust is conducting a review of its board governance, and is also recruiting a new chair and new trustees.

Murdoch told HR magazine: “I had worked as a consultant with the charity since 2010 taking a leading role in delivering strategic projects including the construction of the airbase, introducing night flying and the acquisition of new helicopters. I was then honoured to become the chief operating officer of the charity in 2018 and subsequently interim chief executive.  Given my dedication and commitment to the charity, I was shocked by the actions of the trustee towards me.”

The judgement for this case is published here.