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Weetabix loses constructive dismissal case over ‘bullying’ boss

A former Weetabix employee has won his constructive dismissal case against the cereal firm after he resigned twice over his boss’ profane management style.

The employment tribunal found that Gary Mobbs, former health, safety and environment manager for Weetabix, had been forced to leave his job due to aggressive management, an unfair grievance investigation and appeal process by HR staff at the firm.

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This combination was found to breach the implied terms of trust and confidence in Mobbs' employment contract.

Mobbs had worked at the company happily for 25 years, the court heard, before originally tendering his resignation in 2018 because of his new manager’s “bullying and harassing” style of management.

Yet Mobbs was persuaded to stay on at the firm after his manager John Petre promised to change his behaviour. 

Over the next two years, however, Petre would continue to swear at staff, admitting later to the tribunal that he would intentionally humiliate staff in an attempt to drive performance.

Mobbs raised a formal grievance against Petre in November 2019, but the next month Petre was promoted. 

Many of the witness interviews for the grievance process began 34 days after colleagues were first named. The process concluded Petre was not at fault. 

Employment Judge Hutchings said: “In my judgement, viewing the evidence from the investigation objectively, the investigation lacked balance and the outcome letter did not align to the evidence [Laura Morton, the grievance investigator] gathered.”

Morton found no evidence of bullying or harassing behaviour in the grievance process, despite multiple accounts of such behaviour being listed in the interviews.

Liz Sebag Montefiore, director and co-founder of HR consultancy 10Eighty, said it can be difficult for HR to uncover bullying within their organisations.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “HR may not even know how much is going on, and, when they find out, it is not so easy to change people’s behaviour.”

She recommended HR uses 360-degree evaluations and carefully designed employee surveys to uncover patterns and hotspots of bad behaviour.

She added: “It beggars belief that a manager could think humiliating someone would improve their performance.

“That the company found 'no evidence' might mean they didn't look very hard, or it might mean that witnesses would not speak out because they weren't sure that they would be protected from retaliation. That lack of trust is a serious problem in the workplace.”

Weetabix’s approach to Mobbs’ appeal of the decision was also poor, the tribunal found. 

No record was taken during appeal meetings, which were only summarised later in emails. These emails were found to be inaccurate by Hutchings. 

Petre was not interviewed in the appeal process, and little reference was made at any stage in the grievance process to Weetabix’s own Dignity at Work policy.

The final straw for Mobbs came in 2020, when he was referred to an occupational health specialist at AXA. At his first telephone appointment, he was asked by the nurse how he would be able to handle challenging conversations on his return.

The referral itself was subject to significant delays, the tribunal found, because of the poor administration by Weetabix’s head of HR, Stuart Benham. 

Throughout the tribunal, Hutchings found that Benham was confused, inconsistent and not credible in the evidence he gave.

David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law, told HR magazine: “HR practitioners should consider reading the judgement in full. 

“Not only does it illustrate the factors that employment judges will take into account in deciding whether employees have been constructively dismissed, it also provides guidance on how larger organisations in particular should manage grievance processes.”

Matt Jenkin, employment partner at law firm Moorcrofts, told HR magazine: “Whilst the employment tribunal made it clear that it was not their role to reconsider the decision reached, it is clear that they were left unimpressed by how Weetabix had dealt with the grievance. 

“The tribunal was also highly critical of the decision itself, finding that it did not reflect the evidence gathered and was based on a misapplication of Weetabix’s own dignity at work policy.

“This judgement serves as a useful reminder to employers to deal with grievances without delay and to make sure that the decisions reached are supported by the evidence uncovered.”

A Weetabix spokesperson said: "We are proud of our reputation as a fair and inclusive employer. We expect the highest standards of conduct from all Weetabix employees, so undertook a full investigation when this matter came to light.

"Whilst we respect the tribunal judgement, we are confident in our grievance handling processes and the steps taken, so consider this matter closed."