Co-operative Group has faced legal action from a former company executive who claims the organisation embarked upon a “deliberate campaign” to compromise her reputation following an act of whistleblowing in which she expressed concerns over what she believes is the company’s malpractice and poor governance.
Kathleen Harmeston was employed as procurement director of Co-operative Group in April 2014 before being placed on ‘garden leave’ in June of that year before being quietly dismissed three months later. Her tribunal hearing is now underway in Manchester and she is seeking £5 million in damages for unfair dismissal.
Ms Harmeston defended her performance at Co-op as well as her prior years of experience in the field of procurement which has made her “a well known person in the industry” with a nomination for Businesswoman of the Year award in 2012.
Explaining the alleged malpractice at Co-op, Ms Harmeston claimed the spending of 70% of the company’s overall £1.5bn fortune was not detailed in the officially published procurement policy released by the organisation. She further stated that Co-operative Group is “haemorrhaging money” due to high costs amassed by hiring management consultant services; a expenditure costing between £4m and £8m during 2013 alone.
Ms Harmeston’s revelations allegedly led to her being put on ‘garden leave’ in June 2014 and later being dismissed from the company entirely in September that year. Allan Leighton, the Co-operative Group chairman, responded to the allegations at tribunal: “We dismissed her because she acted in a manner which was not in keeping with the importance and seniority of her role, nor the values and principles of the Co-op.”
The respondent made further assertions which questioned Ms Harmeston’s credibility as a reliable witness. The company’s legal team explored a dispute she had with the organisation after being hired in which she insisted on having an office based on a different floor to the one she was allocated at the company’s offices in a bid to make her appear resentful towards Co-op.
There was also an emphasis on Ms Hemberton’s career prior to her employment at Co-op, with details of how she had worked closely with a consultancy firm that were investigated for misconduct against Royal Mail when working with the postal organisation several years ago.
Bringing this historic information to light is a not-so subtle effort intended to bring Ms Harmeston’s dependability into question. However, the Co-operative group is likely to be proven to have been aware of Ms Harmeston’s conduct while employed at Royal Mail as her efforts at reducing the company’s expenditure was essential to her being hired by Co-op.
As part of her witness statement, Ms Harmeston maintained that she “at all times acted with the utmost integrity” regarding Co-op’s business interests. She also expressed how she felt about her former employer’s behaviour towards her:
“It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the respondent embarked upon a deliberate campaign to comprehensively disparage my reputation with staff, suppliers and within the Executive Search community seeking to neutralise the impact of my disclosures and to utterly destroy my hard won reputation and career.”
An act of whistleblowing is protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act where there is reasonable belief that an employee was dismissed as part of a company’s response to , an employee voiding their concerns, which results in such action being labelled unfair dismissal.
Ms Harmeston also asserted that Co-op used deceptive conduct as a means of monitoring her when they gave her the code name “Wimbledon” in order to keep aware of her actions using a system that would not lead a “paper trail” back to her. The Co-operative group dismisses all claims Ms Harmeston is making against it and has claimed it will “fully and robustly defend our decision to dismiss Kath Harmeston”.
The ongoing tribunal and is expected to last for two weeks.