What really happened

Presenting a case is an exercise in storytelling. The two parties tell the tribunal rival stories, and the tribunal decides which one it believes.

Stories with gaps or implausible plot twists are less likely to be believed than stories that hang together and fit with what the tribunal already knows about human nature. So if your story goes (for instance): “I was a reliable and competent employee and I’d got on well with my manager for 3 years, and then suddenly and for no reason she started picking on me and finding fault with everything I did, and then put me on performance management procedures and ultimately sacked me,” the tribunal is likely to struggle with that. Why did she suddenly start picking on you? There’s got to be something more to it.

If you can help the tribunal with that, you’ll improve your prospects. You may not be able to: the true story may be something that’s been kept from you. But it’s worth thinking about whether you can work out why the people you say treated you badly behaved the way they did.

An example (drawn roughly from life – names and other details changed, of course) may help make the point:

Janet was a civil servant. She’d been employed in a large government department for over 20 years, having joined as a school-leaver at 16. She was a reliable and hard-working employee, and her managers valued her. She was by now an HEO (Higher Executive Officer), and had for a couple of years, with her managers’ support, been looking for a suitable SEO (Senior Executive Officer) job – the next grade up.

The office Janet worked in was reorganised, with the result that the 4 existing HEO jobs in that office were going to be replaced by 3 new HEO jobs. The existing HEOs were invited to apply for the 3 jobs, but Janet’s manager, Paul, told her she shouldn’t bother: this was the ideal opportunity to get her into an SEO job, and he had a couple in mind for her. So Janet didn’t apply, and the 3 remaining HEO jobs went to her colleagues. But then promised meetings about Janet’s fate got repeatedly postponed, and she started to feel that Paul was avoiding her. Her existing role dwindled to nothing, the office space was being redesigned; presently her room was measured for furniture for its new occupant, and still she had no news about what the department was going to do with her. She went off sick with stress and depression.

Finally, Paul and Janet had a meeting in which he offered her an HEO job in another office, further away from her home, where she’d always said she didn’t want to work. When she asked ‘but what about the SEO job you promised me?’ he denied ever having made the promise, and told her that she didn’t yet have the skills for an SEO job and would need an extended period of training in a supernumerary role before she was ready for an SEO job – and anyway, none was available at the moment.

Janet resigned and claimed constructive dismissal.

If Janet convinces the tribunal that this story is true, she probably wins her constructive unfair dismissal claim. But it’s an odd story. Everyone agrees that she was a valued employee. She’d always been on good terms with Paul previously, and he had always seemed a good and rational manager. She’s not aware of anything she’s done to turn him against her. She’s asking the tribunal to believe that he suddenly started treating her with bewildering unfairness, and telling lies about their previous conversations. What’s going on? Janet will have a better chance of succeeding if she can offer the tribunal a theory about why he might be doing this.

Here’s the back-story:

Paul genuinely thought that he had a couple of possible SEO jobs lined up for Janet when he told her not to bother applying for the HEO jobs in her own workplace, and he believed he would be able to place her in one of them. Getting Janet to drop out of the competition for the 3 HEO jobs saved him quite a lot of trouble – he could just slot her 3 colleagues in without interviews. He was busy and hassled at the time of the reorganisation, so he gave Janet that assurance without checking it out properly. Then when he came to try to place her in one of the SEO jobs, he found someone more senior had other ideas.

Now he was in a fix: he’d made Janet a promise he couldn’t fulfil, to the detriment of her career; and, worse he’d ducked dealing with it until she was off sick with stress, so he’d damaged her health too. Clearing up the mess honestly would have meant apologising to Janet and admitting to his superiors that he’d made quite serious mistakes. Pretending he hadn’t made the promise, and saying Janet wasn’t ready for an SEO job anyway, seemed to him like the easy way out.

This doesn’t reflect well on Paul, but it’s a perfectly comprehensible story of a normally decent manager backing himself into a corner where he faced a fairly tough test of his integrity – and flunked it. It’s certainly a much more credible tale than, ‘My previously decent and caring manager suddenly started victimising me for no apparent reason.’

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