Senior officers at a London borough accused of unfairly dismissing a director have told a tribunal she was sacked after failing to meet performance targets.
Rachael Wright-Turner, who is at the centre of an unfair dismissal claim, was dismissed from the high-pressure role of director of public service reform (PSR) at Hammersmith and Fulham LBC while she was on sick leave with post-traumatic stress disorder and acute anxiety.
Mark Grimley, the director responsible for human resources at the council while Ms Wright-Turner was employed, said he had advised chief executive Kim Smith to dismiss her after ‘a number of issues’ were uncovered while she was on sick leave, including ‘lack of control,’ ‘repeated issues around governance’ and ‘repeated exposure on the budget’.
He added: ‘It was her [Ms Wright-Turner] responsibility to set up the PSR service but she ignored – where she wanted to – management instruction around the budget.
'There were far too many issues to resolve.’
The council’s strategic director of social care, Lisa Redfern, who took over PSR two months after Ms Wright-Turner went on sick leave, claimed she found a ‘dysfunctional department in utter chaos, without direction’.
She said: ‘No one seemed to know who they were supervising, people didn’t seem to know who their manager was, no one seemed to know exactly what they were doing.
'I don’t think I’ve encountered it in my career.’
Hammersmith & Fulham’s strategic director for finance and governance, Hitesh Jolapara, said Ms Wright-Turner’s PSR department recorded the ‘biggest area of overspend by far’.
However, Ms Wright-Turner’s QC, Ben Collins, insisted his client’s warnings about budget pressures had been ignored and suggested she was ‘easy to blame’ after going on sick leave.
Jessica Pezzolesi, who was Ms Wright-Turner’s executive support officer, said the department was ‘extremely understaffed’ – with up to 50 vacant positions to fill - and the pressure was getting to her boss before she went on sick leave.
‘She persevered and obviously it got the better of her,’ she said.
‘She was not only doing her job – she was doing everyone else’s job.’
In her witness statement, Ms Pezzolesi wrote: ‘If Rachael had been given the support and resources that she had needed I believe that the department would no doubt have been a huge success.’
Sarah Thomas, who was interim director of delivery and value, said Ms Smith had a ‘bullying leadership style’ and became ‘aggressive, erratic and dictatorial’ shortly after she got her first role leading a local authority.
She said: ‘We wanted her to succeed.
'We needed her to succeed.
'She did not use her leadership team appropriately and often got confused in terms of what leadership is.’
Mr Collins, accused Ms Smith of treating his client ‘like a naughty schoolgirl’ after she failed to attend a meeting with a senior councillor on her first day.
He argued it was ‘unfair and unreasonable’ that Ms Wright-Turner was given no warning of her impending dismissal on grounds of poor financial management, and was not given any opportunity to be heard or appeal.
Mr Collins claimed Ms Smith ‘took advantage of her sickness absence with no process whatsoever,’ adding: ‘It is never acceptable to dismiss an employee without warning, without process and without giving them an opportunity to be heard.’
Ms Smith said Ms Wright-Turner was ‘not a team player or collaborator’ and she had informally raised her failure to meet performance targets four months before she went on sick leave.
The chief executive insisted she had ‘tried to guide and steer’ Ms Wright-Turner but she had not proved herself in her probationary period.
Tribunal members have reserved their judgement.