Investigators probe dozens of gagging orders as former Hull College staff left ‘devastated’

The HR director at Hull College Group has been placed on a leave of absence after an ongoing independent investigation found dozens of pay-offs and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Former employees with gagging clauses in their settlement agreements came forward after the chief executive, Michelle Swithenback, was placed on a “leave of absence” in early October.

They described how they were paid substantial sums to stop them pursuing bullying and pay-related sexual discrimination claims.

“I broke down and spent many days crying privately”

The college has refused to comment, but FE Week understands Julie Milad has been temporarily removed from post whilst the claims are investigated.

Milad was appointed director of HR in 2017, and according to her LinkedIn page was promoted to vice principal HR and corporate services in November 2018.

Documents seen by FE Week show that in just eight months, between March 2018 and October 2018, more than £6 million was spent on redundancy payments to over 200 staff.

The costs were covered by the government as part of a huge £42 million bailout as part of the national college Restructuring Fund.

The need to reduce the number of employees formed part of the conditions of the one-off funding and according to published college accounts, a staffing limit was set at 65 per cent of total expenditure.

One former senior employee, ‘Anna’ (see right), described how in the summer of 2018 she found she was not “being taken forward”.

“I broke down and spent many days crying privately” says Anna, who was also made aware by an independent lawyer she had a case for pay-related sexual discrimination.

In email exchanges seen by FE Week, the college’s in-house lawyer said a male member of staff had been overpaid in “error” so “would not look to compensate you for an error of payment made to another member of staff”.

Anna was instead offered four months’ pay as well as a £5,000 “enhancement” for a “swift conclusion and as a gesture of good will…on the proviso that your agreement [NDA] is signed and returned at the earliest opportunity”.

“The solicitor told me to just enjoy some time out as at my age I had deserved it,” says Anna who accepted the offer and signed the NDA.

The NDA, also seen by FE Week, said that “by signing this agreement you are waiving your rights to pursue a claim against your employer” and included gagging clauses such as: “You must not say anything derogatory about the college or do anything that would damage its reputation.”

“The impact on my mental health has been significant,” Anna said. “I was the main earner in our household and my family relied on me.”

Another former senior employee, ‘James’ (see below), claims he was being bullied in late 2018, after the restructure, and raised the matter with the HR department.

“I was humiliated in college meetings for problems that were not even my responsibility,” he said.

He was offered a £30,000 pay-off for his silence and “told if I made a complaint it would simply take three months of wasted time and then I would leave with nothing”.

James said he “was backed into a corner with a choice of either sign the NDA or leave with nothing”.

“It is clear now that the NDA was not to prevent information going to competitors, but to cover up claims of bullying, constructive dismissal and mismanagement.”

The independent investigation, being undertaken by a leading law firm, was launched by the college in September after a senior leader, turned whistleblower, reported evidence of nepotism and inappropriate use of funds.

“I was humiliated in college meetings for problems that were not even my responsibility”

At the time, education minister Lord Agnew told FE Week: “Any financial wrongdoing, if it has occurred, is treated extremely seriously and we will be carefully monitoring events as the information becomes available.”

FE Week then reported in October how Graham Raddings had used the college marketing budget between January and August 2018 to promote a several computer game related projects, including one he had co-founded.

Raddings, himself a computer game enthusiast, is also husband to the college’s chief executive.

It is understood the investigation, in addition to looking at the NDAs, is also taking a closer look at the over £100,000 spent on a computer game app, computer game-style cinema advertising and a PR agency that promoted the music event and computer game.

A freedom of information request response shows the college group spent over £1 million on marketing in the past two years.

One of the last marketing budget commitments, before the investigation was launched, included a three year deal for naming rights at the Hull KR stadium, Craven Park.

The college has refused to answer questions concerning the costs or benefits of the deal, but Hull KR has confirmed “so far as we are concerned the situation has not changed since August…this is a three-year deal that kicks in properly at the start of the 2020 season”.

 

James’s story

A former senior employee spoke to FE Week that we refer to as James, as he did not wish to be named.

James described how the bullying he experienced has had a serious impact on his mental health. After raising concerns he was persuaded by the director of HR he would have to leave with nothing unless he signed a deal that silenced him.

“I was humiliated in college meetings for problems that were not even my responsibility” he said.

“It was made clear to me that those at the top wanted me to leave.

“The long term mental health issues this puts on me and my family is devastating, as those who sign NDAs have to rebuild their lives and careers under the false impression that they were at fault.”

James raised concerns through official channels but was persuaded he would get nothing unless he accepted a £30,000 payoff in return for not pursuing a claim of constructive dismissal and bullying by individuals in the senior leadership team.

“I was told if made a complaint it would simply take three months of wasted time and then I would leave with nothing.

“It is clear now that the NDA was not to prevent information going to competitors, but to cover up claims of bullying, constructive dismissal and mismanagement.

“It is crippling for an employee who is forced into a situation where they have no choice, especially when the activity is coming from the very top and is not related to performance. Raising issues with the HR only meant that they used this information to further enforce my NDA.

“I was backed into a corner with a choice of either sign the NDA or leave with nothing.”

 

Anna’s story

Another former senior employee spoke to FE Week that we refer to as Anna, as she did not wish to be named.

Anna had worked at the college for more than decade and was one of over 200 employees who in her own words were not “being taken forward”.

“My world crumbled. I had already committed to seeing out my career at Hull College and was a dedicated, loyal and hardworking member of staff without a blemish on my record.

“I broke down and spent many days crying privately.”

In the course of the redundancy process, Anna discovered that a male employee doing the same job had been paid significantly more.

In correspondence seen by FE Week, Anna raised this with the college after an independent lawyer suggested there were grounds for a pay-related sexual discrimination grievance.

The in-house lawyer for the college responded to Anna, claiming the male member of staff had been overpaid in “error” so “would not look to compensate you for an error of payment made to another member of staff”.

Anna was instead offered a £5,000 “enhancement” for a “swift conclusion and as a gesture of good will”.

The email from the in-house lawyer said this offer was made “on the proviso that your agreement [NDA] is signed and returned at the earliest opportunity”.

“The solicitor told me to just enjoy some time out as at my age I had deserved it,” says Anna.

She subsequently signed the NDA, seen by FE Week, which included the line: “By signing this agreement you are waiving you rights to pursue a claim against your employer, in exchange for this you will receive the payments shown in the Termination Agreement”.

Anna’s NDA went on to say that “you cannot disclose any information that has come into your knowledge during the course of your employment to anyone outside the organisation” and “you must not say anything derogatory about the college or do anything that would damage its reputation”.

Anna says: “The impact on my family has been huge. I often break down and even mourn the career/life/respect I had. My confidence has gone. My husband and I have had to rethink our retirement plans, and I wonder what the future holds.

“The impact on my mental health has been significant. I was the main earner in our household and my family relied on me.

“I was disappointed that no senior leader took the time to thank me or say goodbye during my last weeks for my service, and I was left on my last day walking to my car, looking up at the building and saying ‘goodbye Hull College.”