A Scottish council at the centre of a bullying row has been rebuked by an employment tribunal, with a former social worker being awarded almost £27,000 for unfair dismissal.
Melani Erlank was sacked by Argyll and Bute Council in September 2019 following a long-running dispute in which she claimed to have been bullied by her manager.
The tribunal found that the local authority allowed the issue to “fester” for years, with senior managers “supportive” of the manager while having “no will” to help Ms Erlank.
Bosses were also criticised for disregarding the advice of occupational health experts and the views of the council’s elected members in the way they dealt with the issue.
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The judgment comes after a survey published last year revealed that four out of five NHS staff within the council’s Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) with NHS Highland – in which Ms Erlank worked – had experienced or witnessed bullying and harassment.
Speaking to The , Ms Erlank said the judgment signalled the end of “four very painful years” during which she felt suicidal at times.
She said: “I feel very relieved and grateful that my claim was upheld. The judgment means I feel vindicated and heard. My concerns were legitimate and I wasn’t losing my mind.
“I felt betrayed by management and HR. Their lack of intervention caused the situation to escalate. They could and should have taken action when they became aware of the concerns.
“I lost confidence in the system, struggled with my mental health, felt isolated and unsupported. At times I felt suicidal and unable to continue. If I did not have the support of my family and my union, I don’t know what would have happened.
“I feel I have lost out on so much – losing my job felt like a death.”
However, she added that the tribunal’s decision means she can now move on with her life and hopes it will help to improve things at the council.
Melani Erlank said she felt vindicated by the judgment
“It won’t bring back my job and reputation, but it brings peace,” she said.
“Concerns about the bullying culture within Argyll and Bute Council have been raised for many years. My hope is that my case will pave the way for my colleagues to have better outcomes in future.”
The tribunal heard that the social worker began working with the council in February 2005, with Julie Cameron becoming her line manager in 2013.
The following year, Ms Erlank was signed off due to work-related stress.
She later suffered another period of absence for the same reason and raised concerns with local area manager Linda Skrastin that she was being bullied by Ms Cameron.
At this point, mediation was proposed but Ms Cameron refused to take part.
It later came to light that she had written a letter claiming that Ms Erlank was incompetent and that she considered mediation “undermined her position as a manager”.
Employment judge Sally Cowen criticised the council for not taking action over this response, saying that “a reasonable employer would have considered disciplinary action towards the manager”.
The tribunal heard that Ms Erlank suffered several periods of stress-related absence, and was seconded to another post for a short period of time.
However, things came to a head in August 2019 at a case review meeting which resulted in Ms Erlank being dismissed due to to “a breakdown in working relationships”.
Judge Cowen awarded her a total of £26, 573.51 for unfair dismissal. This included a 20% reduction due to contributory conduct by Ms Erlank as she refused to take part in a “facilitated discussion process” due to a number of issues.
The judge stated: “The Tribunal considers that the actions of the Respondent were what led to the dismissal. The matter could have been handled differently from the outset and the Respondent’s acquiescence to Ms Cameron’s position of not wishing to engage, meant no progress was made for almost 2 years.
“When resolution was attempted, the mental health of the Claimant was ignored and there was no will by the management involved to find ways to keep the Claimant in employment. The dismissal was therefore unfair.”
A spokesperson for Argyll and Bute Council said: “We are committed to doing all possible to create a positive working environment for our employees. A lot of change has happened already since the time of this complaint.
“We will continue to progress, with the HSCP, development of a constructive culture that supports all our employees in all the many different roles required to deliver effective services.”