Christine Pratt: The chequered past and tangled present of woman at the centre of the bullying storm
Tuesday 23 February 2010
Before she entered the public eye in spectacular fashion on Sunday night, announcing that her charity had received calls from distressed staff working in Gordon Brown's office, most people had never heard of Christine Pratt.
A cursory examination of her recent history paints a picture of a woman who has spent the past eight years as a dedicated third-sector worker. Since 2002 she has run the UK's only anti-bullying helpline, which answers calls from children and adults who feel they are being victimised at school or work.
But delve a little deeper and her past reveals a torrid history of bitter feuds with fellow workers, a blog devoted to undermining her bullying helpline and accusations of a conflict of interest between her charity and a company run by her husband.
Between 2001 and 2003, Mrs Pratt was embroiled in an employment dispute with her former employer Sanden International (Europe) Ltd, a UK subsidiary of a Japanese air-conditioning company where she worked as a human resources manager.
An employment tribunal was told she was a "patently hostile" employee who screamed in the face of a colleague. According to documents from the Tribunal Service, Mrs Pratt alleged that Sanden had intentionally discriminated against her on the grounds of sex and race, but her case was dismissed by the original tribunal in January 2002, as was her subsequent appeal in October 2003.
The tribunal heard that her grievances were connected to the appointment of a new human resources general manager, a position for which she had applied before being turned down in favour of Kenneth Roberts, an external applicant.
Relations between the two soured quickly, with Mrs Pratt resisting Mr Roberts' encroachments on her authority. The pair sent each other a series of angry emails, the tone of which were described at the tribunal as "discourteous and hostile". The dispute culminated in a fiery meeting on 6 October 2000, when Mrs Pratt complained that her colleague had failed to communicate sufficiently with her and "at one stage she went over to where Mr Roberts was sitting, thrust her face into his and screamed 'Communicate!' very loudly and directly into his ear". The company secretary Hiroshi Tatsu was asked to mediate between the two, but during a meeting Mrs Pratt was said to have told him, "There's no point in involving you on this issue as you don't have a full understanding of English".
A co-worker told the tribunal she "became very emotional, describing Mr Roberts as a bastard" and demanded that the company buy out her contract. When they declined, she did not return to work and later filed a suit of constructive dismissal against them. In support of her racial discrimination complaint, Mrs Pratt claimed Sanden "has a strong Japanese culture and that all senior managers, apart from two, are Japanese".
Her behaviour "horrified" the company's managing director Tony Noji, but he decided not to take disciplinary action. The tribunal criticised this, saying Mrs Pratt "could and probably should have been formally disciplined for her conduct" towards both Mr Roberts and Mr Tatsu.
Dismissing Mrs Pratt's case, the tribunal concluded: "In our view, the respondent [Sanden] was extraordinarily patient and tolerant in the light of the applicant's [Mrs Pratt's] patently hostile reaction to any attempts on the part of the respondent to persuade her to work with the new general manager."
In 1995, Mrs Pratt also claimed she had been unfairly dismissed from her job as a senior secretary at BAE Systems. It is understood her claims again centred on allegations of bullying, but no tribunal hearings took place as both parties reached an out-of-court settlement. In March 2003, shortly before her appeal against the Sanden decision, Mrs Pratt said she was suing BAE for £450,000 in lost earnings after they allegedly broke the terms of the settlement. BAE refused to comment on the matter yesterday.
Her experiences at work may well have informed Mrs Pratt's decision to set up the National Bullying Helpline in 2002, with the help of her husband David. Visitors to its website are confronted with a garish purple background, slogans written in block capitals and supportive quotes from David Cameron and Ann Widdecombe. It does not feel like the online home of a large British charity. The charity's financial records appear to confirm this impression. It was registered with the Charity Commission in 2007, but the only accounts it has filed so far are for the year to September 2007, and show that its annual income amounted to just £1,818 with an equally modest expenditure of £852. The accounts for the year to September 2008 are currently 208 days overdue.
Before they set up the charity, Mrs Pratt and her husband founded HR & Diversity Management Ltd, which provides specialist advice in resolving disputes between companies and their employees. Professor Cary Cooper – who was the first of four of the helpline's patrons to resign in protest yesterday – told The Independent he had become worried about a potential conflict of interest between the charity and the couple's other company last year. He said: "I talked to her and said, 'You have to have this independently assessed', which she did. And the independent assessors came back and there was no case to answer. I don't know the details of it but that's what she said."
On its website, the helpline states: "Occasionally, we are asked to refer callers on to other expert dispute resolution service providers. Where we refer cases for legal expertise, investigation, mediation, HR consultancy or any other professional consultancy ... we would always involve you. We have a Working Agreement with all our Associates. In most cases the Associate makes a charitable donation to us in return for referred business."
An internet blog entitled "The Bullying HelpLine: the last thing you need if you're being bullied", set up in August last year, claims the charity is "inextricably linked" to HR & Diversity Management Ltd.
Last night Mrs Pratt would not comment on the allegations. Earlier she had defended the operation of her helpline. She acknowledged that they did offer to refer callers to the consultancy, but insisted the arrangement had been properly approved. "It is actually done under an agreement that has been approved by the Law Society. It has been thoroughly vetted," she said.
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