Friday, November 30, 2007

Stress in Wales

SQA turns its attention to Wales in this report, having previously focused on stress in Loamshire. It appears a former county archivist of Flintshire has been entangled in a dispute with his former employer, Flintshire County Council, in a spat of the kind we would normally associate with the benighted Garth Bland, county archivist of Loamshire.

According to Gareth Hughes writing in the North Wales Daily Post under the headline “Unfairly he must wait for payout", Paul Sillitoe, county archivist of Flintshire, was dismissed by the county council in 2006 for gross misconduct.

Mr Sillitoe joined the council in 2003 after managing archives in Wolverhampton, Oldham and the Waterways Trust, but went off with work-related stress in 2004 after complaining about his workload. The dispute began after he returned to work.

Mr. Hughes informs us the dismissal followed an internal disciplinary tribunal at which allegations of bullying and harrassment by an administrative assistant, Ms Helen Davison were upheld. The bullying and harrassment is described by Mr. Hughes as having consisted of instructing the junior colleague to ask permission to leave the office even before going to the toilet.

Mr. Sillitoe admitted he was task-focused but explained telephones had to be answered and he needed to be kept informed as to Ms Davison’s whereabouts. Ms Davison found his style of management generally to be “rude and abrupt” although at one point Mr. Sillitoe appears to have been misled about the true extent of Ms Davison’s complaints.

Julia Lorkin

Mr. Sillitoe was dismissed the employ of Flintshire County Council for gross misconduct in March 2006 following a disciplinary hearing chaired by Julia Lorkin, Director of Corporate Strategy. In June 2007 an employment tribunal ruled Mr. Sillitoe had been dismissed unfairly. A subsequent tribunal took place on 23 November 2007 to consider compensation for Mr. Sillitoe but reserved its judgement.

The tribunal chairman, Mary Cocks, is damning in her findings. She said it was right for allegations of bullying to be taken seriously and fully investigated but because of the potential consequences for the employee the conclusions had to be based on clear findings from the evidence.

“The respondent in this case fully investigated but then went on to draw conclusions about the seriousness of the claimant’s conduct which could not be the evidence,” she stated.

In the interim Mr. Sillitoe had tried to earn a living as a proof-reader and editor and was now fortunate, he said, to have been awarded funding to study at Liverpool University for a doctorate in archive studies.

We asked Garth Bland to comment.

Sadly, many local government disciplinary hearings involve an over-reaction, either motivated by personality issues or political correctness. I have even known panel chairmen falsify the minutes of disciplinary proceedings and meet with complainants outside the official disciplinary procedure to do a stitch up. I am not saying this occurred in this instance, however.

I am curious to know whether at any point expert witnesses from the National Archives’ National Advisory Services, the Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government or the Society of Archivists [sic] were called upon to give evidence in Mr. Sillitoe’s favour, at either the disciplinary hearing or the tribunals.

The issue of staff cover is important and might be overlooked by the layman. Public searchooms, the areas in record offices where archival material is consulted, must be supervised continuously to ensure documents are not stolen. The documents, besides being unique documentary heritage, are someone's property, either the council's or a private owner's. When in use by the researching public ducuments are sadly at risk of theft by a minority of unscrupulous autograph, stamp, postmark or document collectors. Additionally, the storage area or strongroom from which documents are produced into the public searchroom needs to be guarded against unauthorised access. The recent Data Protection Act has reinforced this need. Record offices hold sensitive information as well as historically or financially valuable records.

Sadly disciplinary hearings seem to not conform to the same Common Law principles as tribunals and full-blown court cases, rather in the same way many court summonses disallow representation for defendants. This is bound to mean Common Law principles such as presumption of innocence are ridden over roughshod. The consequence is that employees must sometimes resort to employment tribunals.

We should also give some attention to what constitutes “gross misconduct”. There is an accepted hierarchy of disciplinary misdemeanours, misdemeanour, misconduct and gross misconduct. Moreover, local authorities’ personnel or human resources staff should follow the guidelines laid down by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services in their Green Book, but you would be surprised how widely it is interpreted. Usually gross misconduct is reserved for alleged serious criminal offences such as rape, assault, theft and criminal damage. It is alarming to discover that a line manager’s verbal comments can be construed as serious enough to warrant dismissal.

We asked Garth to say a little more about the stress in managing a local government record office.

I can certainly sympathise with a fellow county archivist who has to deal with an excessive workload. Such a workload stems from the supposed non-statutory status of local government archive services, which permits local authorities to under-staff and under-fund their archive services. This means staff have to be highly motivated and work under-grade in order to make up for service deficiencies. Quite often also, in contravention of the National Archives’ Standard for Record Repositories, the chief archivist of a repository has no access to the council’s governing body. This can easily lead to inter-service rivalry and being briefed against. We should remember that without archives legislation, cultural philistines in local authorities can run amock with archives services.

We should bear in mind that archives stock is always increasing through additional deposits, creating an increasing ratio between unlisted collections and available archives staff. Many authorities also operate modern records services to internal clients. Thanks to TV series such as Who Do You Think You Are, many offices have seen an increase in researcher numbers, often attributable to novices taking up family history and placing extra workload on staff. This creates an increasing ratio between public and staff. Against this background we have set response times for answering telephone calls, compliance with government initiatives, CIPFA and TNA questionnaires, Freedom of Information requests and all the usual administrative workload associated with a local government service of any kind.

It is against this background of operating a direct public service at a typical local authority record office that staff must deal with the general public, which at times can be vexing, although this shouldn't be the case. Archivists are especially at risk of suffering psycho-social stress.

Finally, I am glad Mr. Sillitoe’s reputation has been salvaged and wish him well for the future.

We thanked Garth for his contribution.

Further reading

Tips for Employers
Stress in Loamshire
Career Guidance
The strange case of Andrew Allerton

Europe's power is easy to miss. Like an 'invisible hand', it operates through the shell of traditional structures. The British House of Commons, the law courts are still here, but they have all become agents of the European Union implementing European law. This is no accident. By creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over countries without necessarily becoming a target for hostility.

(Mark Leonard of the Centre for European Reform in Europe's Transformative Power, Centre for European Reform, Bulletin 40, February/March 2005.)

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