Ruth Hannan, the RSA’s former head of policy and participation, was dismissed after it emerged she had spoken to The Observer last year for a piece about how half of staff there had joined the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB).
In the article, she was openly critical of the RSA’s stance on unionisation, not least because it was refusing to recognise the IWGB.
She said the RSA had done “a huge amount of work over the past few years on the future of work and what good work looks like,” but that it was “telling the world one thing, and doing another".
The day after the article appeared, the RSA sent Hannan a letter headed "Immediate termination of employment". Hannan was already due to be leaving the organisation in a matter of days as part of a three-month notice period.
The RSA claimed that the letter it sent to Hannan did not mean that it had dismissed her.
However, the tribunal found because the letter stated Hannan was not required to attend work for the remainder of her notice period and would no longer have access to work systems and premises, she was in fact dismissed for an unfair reason.
Speaking to HR magazine, a spokesperson for IWGB said: “Although the union has since been recognised by the RSA, it wasn’t at the time of the dismissal. The case shows that staff can be protected by trade union laws even though trade union members weren’t formally recognised.”
In a statement, Hannan said she felt a “deep sense of relief” with the ruling.
She added: “Knowing that my reputation and my professionalism had been tarnished was incredibly painful.”
The IWGB said workers at the RSA had claimed RSA CEO Andy Haldane, together with his management team, had pursued anti-union tactics and created a toxic working environment.
In a press statement, the IWGB said: “It has become clear that the RSA, under Andy Haldane’s leadership, does not resemble the historic, progressive organisation that both staff and fellows hold in such high esteem.”
It added: “Ruth’s legal victory has only strengthened our members’ resolve to win the ongoing pay dispute, and has given them confidence and energy to transform the RSA into an organisation that respects and values their work.”
Claire Brook, employment law partner at legal firm Aaron & Partners, said: "This case acts as an important reminder to employers that there are several automatically unfair reasons for dismissal, and even where there is no discernible financial loss, a significant basic award may still be awarded for successful claims.
“Employers should also take note of the importance of the manner in which they handle criticisms from employees, particularly those relating to trade union membership.
“Any issues should be investigated and matters should be addressed fairly and reasonably.”
In September staff at the RSA voted to strike for the first time in its 270 year history after it offered staff a flat £1,000 pay rise.