Original article from Kent Live
A former Kent gardener has described how the National Trust "completely broke [her] spirit" during a three-year battle.
Claire Bryant was eventually awarded nearly £50,000 in compensation by an employment tribunal after judges unanimously decided the 63-year-old was "constructively unfairly dismissed" by the charity.
She worked at Sir Winston Churchill's former home, Chartwell, in Westerham near Sevenoaks, which is now owned by the trust.
Due to unfair dismissal, discrimination and harassment, the former employee has been awarded just over £49,000 in compensation, as SurreyLive reports.
Signing up to the KentLive newsletter means you'll get the latest news direct to your inbox twice a day.
It couldn't be simpler and it takes seconds – simply press here, enter your email address and follow the instructions. You can also enter your email address in the box below the picture on most desktop and mobile platforms.
You can also sign up to our website and comment on our stories by pressing here and signing in.
Speaking to SurreyLive, Claire, who was employed as a kitchen gardener at Chartwell for five years before resigning in June 2018, said: "I can honestly say, I have never been closer to a complete nervous breakdown than I have through the last three years. It has been horrendous, absolutely horrendous.
"It has really knocked every ounce of confidence I have got, but for me, it has never, ever been about the money. It's about being able to stand up for yourself. I wouldn't want any of my family, or anybody's family, to have to go through this."
The tribunal was held remotely via video in Ashford and upheld complaints of direct discrimination and harassment.
This was on the grounds of sex in relation to a job Claire was invited to apply for, but the role was given to a male applicant who, in the interview process, scored significantly lower than her.
The tribunal also heard that the interview should have featured scenario-based questions related to the role, but Claire says she was "humiliated" in front of the public outside Chartwell café.
Criticisms were thrown her way relating to her performance in her existing role, despite her previous four Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), seen by SurreyLive, being rated 'exceptional' or 'very good', with 'high potential'.
Claire told the tribunal at a liability hearing on April 15 and 16 of this year that none of the issues had been raised previously and she felt the meeting was conducted in this manner to reduce her chances of success.
Despite attempting to raise her concerns to the highest level of the National Trust over the way the process was conducted, this fell on deaf ears.
After the panel upheld every part of her claim, Claire felt relieved but said "there was no joy". She said the National Trust "completely broke [her] spirit" and it will take "a very long time" for her to recover.
Speaking about the judgement, she said: "I felt relief that I didn't have to feel intimidated or afraid anymore, and relief that I had my voice heard because I had been shouting into the wind for three years."
The events that led to her resignation
Claire managed a team of up to 50 volunteers on top of her own duties as kitchen gardener, and said she "absolutely loved" her job.
In 2011, she started out as a garden volunteer, before becoming employed on a temporary basis as kitchen gardener in 2012.
This was a role she then secured permanently a year later, and won numerous awards during her employment.
But as time moved on, she claims she was made to feel "worthless".
Claire believes tensions first arose towards the end of 2017 when there was an issue with the length of the volunteers' tea breaks.
This was later referred to as "tea break-gate" during her correspondence with the National Trust.
Some of the volunteers that came to work at Chartwell for up to eight hours a day would take longer breaks than they should have, but Claire says her "card was marked" after she defended her volunteers against senior staff members.
She said: "The volunteers were rightly very upset. They were giving their time for free; they would come in for seven to eight hours a day, regardless of the weather, and they would never abuse the tea breaks.
"Every now and then, there would be times where you would have to say, 'guys can we just tighten up the tea breaks a bit' and they would say 'absolutely'. They were always fine with it.
"I raised this, and I think that is probably where the difficulty started, because I suspect that [senior staff] took exception to me challenging them. It was ridiculous, it was like a 'tea break-gate'."
In the first round of formal interviews for the role, carried out on May 11, 2018, Claire scored 22.5 out of 30 and 27.5 out of 30 in two separate interviews.
The external male candidate who was offered a job scored 16.5 out of 30 for both interviews.
She said she thought the first stage "went well", and she was subsequently invited for an "informal chat" on May 17, as the applicants had been reduced from four down to two.
When she arrived, she was surprised to discover the meeting was being held outside the Chartwell café in front of members of the public. She described the meeting as a "character assassination".
"I felt as though I was being attacked," she said. "It was a very, very uncomfortable conversation and I was feeling extremely upset about the way the interview was conducted.
"It seemed inappropriate for it to be held in an outdoor space. If it was an 'informal chat', as I was told, then I can understand that, but this was not an informal chat."
She continued: "I thought the questions that were asked were completely imbalanced as they were directly related to my current role, whereas the other candidate, who was not an internal candidate, couldn't have been judged on his performance."
She said the role had been advertised four times previously and a woman had never been hired.
Her concerns were raised in an 'informal chat' with senior staff, and Claire said it soon became clear that there were "many objections about [her] work" – none of which were based on facts, she says.
She felt that her accomplishments, dedication, and previous PDRs were not taken into consideration for the new role.
She added: "I was completely shaken about what had happened, it was so upsetting. I came home from work on the Saturday evening [May 19] and I thought 'I am worth more than this'; I thought 'I don't want to work for an environment that doesn't value me'."
After stating she had "no confidence that a truthful resolution would be found" Claire emailed her resignation to the charity on May 20 adding that it was due to the way she was treated.
In her email, she said: "It is evident from the events of the last few weeks that I am not respected for my knowledge, skills or ability and as such I have decided to make your decision simpler by removing myself from the application process and now wish to hand in my resignation."
Claire's exit interview was conducted on June 20, and she was signed off work by her GP with stress and anxiety.
Director general dismissed her concerns
Claire wrote the the director general on July 13 and asked for an investigation to be conducted into "the use of bullying tactics by senior management" within the Chartwell portfolio.
She received a response on August 16 saying the director general had "concluded that this was undertaken in accordance with our recruitment guidelines".
It added: "I have found no evidence of bullying or concerns regarding management methods at Chartwell."
It was at this moment when Claire said she decided to take the National Trust to a tribunal.
There were seven parts to the compensation, which included a basic award, compensation for loss of earnings, counselling costs, compensation for injury to feelings, and uplift in respect of tax.
£7k taken off award by National Trust
On July 9 this year, Claire said she received £41,866.93 from the National Trust – a shortfall of £7,430.31.
After querying this, she was told via email on July 13 that the National Trust believes that, in order to comply with HMRC rules, it is obliged to apply an emergency tax code, despite the remedy including an amount to cover tax.
She says she will now have to wait until April next year to claim the money back, and feels the charity "just wanted to have the last word".
SurreyLive asked the Ministry of Justice whether this was in breach of the judgement but a spokesperson said they would not comment and that it was a matter for Claire to raise with the tribunal judges.
After recently completing her Level 3 course in counselling, Claire said it will take time for her to move forward.
She hopes to one day combine counselling with horticulture and do ecotherapy in an environment that she trusts.
She added: "There's light, and I have always felt the same way with every challenge that has come my way – at the time it feels awful, but when you look backwards, you think 'if I'd have not gone through that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now'."
The National Trust refused to respond to a series of questions from SurreyLive regarding Claire's case, but a spokesperson said: "While we are clearly disappointed by the decision of the tribunal, we respect the judgement.
"However, the judge did make it clear in the remedy judgement that the discrimination was not deliberate and that it was a clear case of unconscious bias."
Sign up to get the latest stories from Kent direct in to your inbox here