‘It was a witch hunt’: Social worker who won unfair dismissal case speaks out

Graham Hennis talks to Community Care after winning his two and a half year legal battle with Oldham council following the death of a service user

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When the verdict of “unfair dismissal” first came, it took a while for it to sink in for Graham Hennis. The mental health social worker has been fighting a two-and-a-half year legal battle against Oldham council to clear his name.

Hennis was blamed when a man in his care fell to his death from a bridge. Despite the coroner finding no evidence the man intended to end his life, and therefore could not have been prevented from doing so, the council accused Hennis of gross negligence and removed him from his post.

Now he is on a “crusade” to regain his dignity and confidence—he wants the council to acknowledge its errors, both leading up to the man’s death, and in its handling of his own dismissal.

Cut-off from support

“Social workers are very good at advocating for other people, but when it comes to themselves they are the worst,” he points out.

“Oldham council refused to accept it owed any duty of care to me as an employee. I was cut off from any support systems I had in place. I saw early on that procedures were not being followed,” he says. “It was a witch hunt.”

Hennis believes the fact he was a vocal staff member, who raised concerns “constantly” about high caseloads and fragmented reporting systems that didn’t talk to each other, meant the council branded him a troublemaker.

“I think they wanted to get rid of me even before the investigation started,” he says. “I wasn’t invited to the adverse incident meeting after the man’s death to debrief, even though that was policy.

“The initial report after the man’s death put the blame on the service and when I saw it again, with the investigator’s report, the wording had changed to put the emphasis on me.” The council puts this down to a typing error.

‘Seriously flawed’

The judge in the employment tribunal, where Hennis won £30,000 for wrongful dismissal, agreed the handling of his case by Oldham council had been “seriously flawed, beginning as they did with a mind-set that was pre-disposed to believe the claimant guilty”.

While Hennis has been vindicated, he is still angry the council continues to insist it acted appropriately, and fails to acknowledge its mistakes. Yet, the main criticisms made by the coroner in the inquest were of the council and NHS trust.

“Oldham council has been taken to task by a legal professional but it continues to say it is in the clear,” he says.

Hennis must still face a hearing before a Health and Care Professions Council panel. Until then, he is determined to keep raising awareness of how vulnerable individual workers can be, hoping his case will encourage others to speak up when they see problematic systems at work.

“Anything that goes wrong, the social worker is instantly to blame and I wanted to raise awareness of this,” he says. “There needs to be more protection for staff.”

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14 Responses to ‘It was a witch hunt’: Social worker who won unfair dismissal case speaks out

  1. rosemarytrustam August 20, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    I do think social workers need to speak out at the moment. They are under tremendous pressure in LAs with the level of cuts that the gov has imposed too often pushed to cut services despite the legal position and their assessment of need. They have a professional responsibility to maintain the law and to uphold their professional judgements. Ironically this is what would save LAs expensive legal battles. Social work managers must listen to their social workers’ judgements and support what’s needed too – that’s not to say they shouldn’t challenge & ensure adequate underpinning evidence, but they won’t have seen the situation, so their judgements should be tempered. It may not be a popular position but the truth should out – or we definitely will have shaping to fit that results in “the emperor’s got no clothes” syndrome.
    We are in the business of risk taking and balancing risks with rights which means risks will go wrong sometimes – as long as a proper process has been gone through managers should be supporting this. (I have a great example from Hertfordshire in the late 70s where Herbert Laming’s initial public response to an accident was roughly- ‘accidents will happen – ofcourse we’ll look into this to ensure this was so, but don’t expect (in this case) people with learning disabilities won’t have accidents just like the general population’ This what we should expect.
    This s/worker’s example isn’t in fact this but echoes of responses being to pillory a s/worker is not what we should expect. This example may not help s/workers to be brave enough, or certainly as brave as he’s been, BUT they should at least ensure their professional judgement is fully recorded and respond repeating this if they are pushed to reduce their assessment in some way/to err too far on the protection of the authority rather than a balanced assessment of the risks and rights. We won’t always get it right but we should stand by our professional judgements and stand up for them

  2. Leon Summerfield August 20, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

    Re garding Graham Hennis,
    Oldham Council should hang their heads in Shame!
    It is remarkable, how some of those people who show up malpractices are often seen as triublesome and vilified. Instead of improving services by taking on board what these iften perceptive people see. People may not always agree with what has been reported, but an atmosphere where people are willing to listen, learn and, therby improve an organisations practice is vital to it’s health.
    I am shortly to start a Social Work degree, and this is one area I will be looking out to see if it is covered, the often soul destroying situation where one has to work with people, who don’t care, and don’t wish to do their jobs, properly and thoroughly.
    Part of the PCF Is the highlighting of unjust practice’s, and not pretending they are not happening.
    Graham so glad of the out come if your horrendous situation. Shame Oldham Council have so much work to do!

  3. Sharon Shoesmith August 20, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

    I am delighted to see that Graham Hennis has defended himself and won. Well done to you Graham.

    Defending oneself is a very difficult process – in the distress that follows these sad incidents a social worker can begin to believe that he or she was negligent. It is therefore important to seek help not only legal but emotional support. I urge any social worker to reach out if they need help – I am happy to offer support or to sit through hearings – I can be contacted via LinkedIn.

    Once again – well done Graham. I will read your story with interest.

    • Jane Buckkey August 26, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

      These comments are so true. However witch hunts and unfair dismissals occur without spectacular tragedies and deaths. Local authorities simply do not like professionals who point to the cracks and the negligence in the front line. The damage done to Social Workers tossed aside by departments wortied about the scale of in house cover ups is wasteful and an abuse of power which mirrors the very behaviours we are trying to protect customers from. Empowering victims is outside the box for The bureaucratic mindset. This has a devastating impact on morale in the workplace and reinforces a culture of fear.
      Sharon Shoesmith I have contacted you on LinkedIn.

    • Cristina F August 28, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      I agree, social workers do need to speak out and defend themselves. Furthermore they need to stick together and support each other in tackling malpractice and bad treatment.

      I had an absolutely outrageus experience, I have challenged bad practice ad I have defended myself in Court but I lost as I did not ask my collegues to be witnesses. Although it was made clear that they did not followed any procedures and decided not to investigate my concerns they were allowed to get away with it. They (2 senior managers) lied under oath. They looked me in the eyes and lied. Sadly the judge colluded with then throught the whole process.

      I have 11 yers of work experience and those who know me can say that I am the biggest advocate for my clients’ rights. The experience shook my whole believe system. What is worst is that they are still confortable in their position, claiming that they protect vulnerable children and families.

      Well done Graham and I am happy for you.
      Der Sharon I will contact you via LinkedIn

  4. Mark Highfield August 20, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    Congratulations, all the best for the future

  5. John Ramsey August 20, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    “Hennis must still face a hearing before a Health and Care Professions Council panel”.
    Once again, double jeopardy.

  6. Pancho August 20, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    Not so long ago I took an adult safeguarding referall. I followed procedure to the letter in deciding that eleigibility criteria had not been met and there was no role for this team. The individual was recieving support and guidance at the time from a specialist multi disciplinary team.

    Tragically.the individual was murdered some weeks later. At the time, a host of senior managers assured me that I had done nothing wrong and could not be blamed.

    Then, when it came to a homicide review, I was left alone, to get hammered and all the managers changed their tune.

    The manager who interviewed me refused to include most of my answers which related to ineffective duty systems, case load managhement, screening, policy inconsistencies and concentrated solely on the things that I didn’t do that I should have done.

    At no time was I offered any support.

    I was more fortunate than Graham Hennis, I wasn’t disciplined at all, but it goes to show that when the excrement hits the extractor, the social worker will find himself friendless, covered in ordure.

  7. Jazz August 20, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    Well done Hennis! So glad for you that you were covered by employment law. Others are less fortunate and due to lack of resources and support fall victims of the system. Their stories need to be told. The system needs to be exposed and changed.

    True what John Ramsey comments – ‘Double jeopardy’ indeed. However, does the HCPC and their other UK regional counterparts realize that one cannot be tried twice for the same murder now under criminal case law in the UK? Oh! But silly me, I was forgetting that social care regulatory bodies appear to be above the law. Who checks on them? Who regulates them? Is their practice evidence based? Are social workers investigated by those who are social work trained and experienced? Because social workers need fair hearings not ‘kangaroo court’ ‘trials’ colluding with bad systems, powerful and bullying managers/employers and relying on hearsay not facts as evidence. And as regards support – it’s not provided, legal, financial or emotional which goes against all social work values.

  8. Susan Harrison August 21, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    Well done Graham, a positive outcome for you but not without a lot of pain in the process. You remained steadfast and have been found to have been unfairly dismissed. Your experience will be a source of strength to others who find themselves unfairly treated in the aftermath of a tragic death.

    Councils and other agencies should stop looking for scapegoats but look to improve the systems that support the most vulnerable in our communities. This should include supporting and valuing the workforce. However, sadly this is much harder to achieve and doesn’t satisfy the appetite for someone to blame and punish.

    This is not to say that bad practice should not be addressed (appropriately and fairly) but even where there is poor practice, this can’t be seen in isolation and responsibility for good and bad practice is a shared one.

  9. Stuart. September 3, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

    £30,000 does not begin to compensate for stress and comes nowhere near lost earnings – losses that we have to assume are still growing. This is a disgrace. Don’t anybody go for vacant jobs in Oldham until they sort this properly.
    And as for having to go to hcpc…. after keeping up the cpd while all this was going on of course.. !!??

  10. Bluster Man September 6, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

    I have been reading and following this case with interest.

    No one worker or group should be blamed for the death of a service user unless they were actively involved in the taking of that life or their ommissions, negligence contributed to the demise in some way shape or form and even then many questions should be asked. (before the boney finger is pointed).

    I would venture and this won’t be popular that many Social workers Managers do listen to their social workers’ judgements and do support them, offerring appropriate challenge & ensure adequate underpinning evidence. I am also sure that many will couch their judgements as well, most of them after all are former social workers.

    I agree with Rosemary The truth should out and when risk taking goes wrong as it inevitably will, no social care worker should be hung out to dry unless of course they bring the profession and all that we stand for into disrepute and I for one could not support that Social Worker.

    Having experience of suspension and investigations it is a lonely desolate place even with family and friends as you can’t speak out for fear of tainting evidence. Holding ones hand up for ommissions of actions or doing things wrong (honesty) is the best policy, there are always two sides to a story and one side is good until the other is told (my grandma taught me that).

    I continue to watch this one to see what the HCPC make of it? In respect to not
    employment legislation but professional practice.???

  11. Terry McClatchey September 7, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Let’s hope the HCPC looks carefully at whether there is still a “case to answer” that requires a public hearing. If the employment judge concluded that Oldham Council’s evidence before the Court/Tribunal was “seriously flawed”; that is likely also to taint any evidence they may have offered to the HCPC. In the absence of any independent evidence againt Mr Hennis, any case is likely to be extremely weak.

    Even if Mr Hennis is exonerated (or more likely the case just quitely dropped), the impact on individuals of lengthy and complex proceedings should not be underestimated.

    Clearly there need to be processes when serioius misconduct is suspected or alleged but the old adage still holds true that “justice delayed is justice denied”.

  12. Tracey Hennis September 8, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    When a Local Authority has been found to have unfairly dismissed a member of staff, they lose even more credibility when they fail to acknowledge and respect the decision handed down by the Court. In this particular case the judgement was extremely damning of the actions of the three senior managers involved. The two investigating officers in this case are both qualified social workers, one is the Principal Social Worker, for them to practice in such a manner is deeply concerning.

    My husband was suspended for seven months without an explanation of the allegations against him. They did not follow their own policies and procedures, lost confidential information, denied Graham access to his dairies, supervision records, did not supply minutes of the disciplinary meetings including appeal minutes despite frequent requests. Graham attempted to provide information to support his case but they did not want to know. They did not even consider to check his unblemished disciplinary record or count the files he had when there was a disagreement about how many cases he actually held in his name.

    The Appeal Process was equally shambolic; rather than an independent consideration of the case a Labour Councillor allowed the process to be impaired by the negative opinions of HR Manager and Legal Advisor. The Judge wrote;

    ” The Tribunal would have have concluded that the dismissal was unfair on the basis of the appeal alone even without taking into account the unfairness in the steps that proceeded it.

    The Judgement stated;
    ” Both investigators approached the case with an eye on the claimant’s guilt, and never opened her mind to the possibility that the claimant might have done an acceptable job in challenging circumstances. Neither of the investigators was receptive to the information being provided to them by the claimant or his managers as to his workload, his conscientiousness or otherwise satisfactory performance as a Social worker”.

    “The investigation, such as it was, into the claimants workload was wholly inadequate and fell far short of the standards expected of a reasonable employer.”

    “The fact that the claimant showed willing to taking on new work particularly complex or difficult cases, was consistent with his having a conscientious and willing approach. That was the information presented to the respondent, but the ease with which it dismissed this as evidence of his having capacity is a further example of its being predisposed to believe the worst of the claimant. This interpretation was all the more surprising against a backdrop of the pressures facing social workers in a climate of financial cutbacks and union concerns.”

    “From the invitation to the disciplinary hearing and throughout the process, the respondent did not frame the allegations with any clarity, seeking instead to hold the claimant responsible for everything that had happened….”

    “Inconsistent and unsatisfactory evidence was given” by the dismissing officer.

    For the Council to fail to acknowledge their mistakes demonstrates an exercise in damage limitation and a lack of insight into the actions of its Senior staff. This is worrying, not least for future investigations of other staff in similar circumstances but also for the reputation of the council.

    I hope that Graham’s experience will inspire other dedicated practitioners in similar circumstances and perhaps to give consideration to joining a union, in this case BASW were excellent.