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

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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.”



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33 Comments

  1. Ex Employee

    “dozens”? I think you wil find that every person who left under the voluntary severance scheme had to sign this. They also had to take legal advice, which was supplied by the College – their own solicitors…

    • It is all very sad. The lawyers were in fact independent to be fair as we discussed this with them at length. They offered to take any issues we had forward and were keen to pursue the college if we wanted to.

    • Emma applegate

      I too had to sign the NDA and was forced out as I had asked too many questions and taken notes on all the wrong doings during the fresh start process, I was offered an incentive payment to leave as it appeared at the time that my position was not going to remain so redundancy was inevitable, I was given no other alternative and felt I had to accept the offer, what I didn’t anticipate was that once I had confirmed I would accept the offer I had to leave the building that same day and was placed on gardening leave whilst I signed the NDA, I had worked at the college for 17 years and was pushed out of the back door with no opportunity to say goodbye to colleagues who I had spent years working with and built up friendships, it’s a disgrace and should not be happening without the powers above facing consequences, not placing them on paid leave whilst investigations take place would be a start, why should they still receive pay when the rest of us are left without

    • Ex employee

      That’s not correct. I, and a number of colleagues, left the College through voluntary redundancy in 2018. We weren’t asked to sign a NDA or saw a solucitor. I believe though this was due to the incompetence of the HR department!

  2. From Somewhere Else

    I think you’ll find this type of behaviour is rife in FE. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to lots of people I know and all at different colleges.

    The truth is, one day you wake up and your face just doesn’t fit anymore. And no amount of employment law is going to protect you if the college decides it is time for you to go.

    • Completely true, this has happened many times to me and others. Usually under a new principal; the practice is to make life as difficult as possible and if you don’t leave, you’re sent home indefinitely, which is extremely distressing and worrying, After a few months you’ll get an offer and NDA to sign. Must be hundreds in the sector

    • EX Subcontractor

      There are many more individuals who have signed a NDA in the last 7 months, there are also senior managers who manage subcontractors doing exactly the same, not scoring tenders correctly, umderspends of funding the whole commercial sector of HCUK needs to be investigated ! There are individuals with promotions whom are not qualified within FE funding , Hull College has always been the same it needs a clear out at senior level within AEB, Apprenticeships and Study programmes , if you dont believe me go and have a look for yourself!

  3. SENSE CHECK

    This is sensationalist news. This college was under the FE commissioner and required to make significant savings. Under the terms of a VOLUNTARY redundancy (i.e. NOT compulsory), possibly with a helpful financial approach provided to the benefit of the employee (PILON), NDAs are STANDARD PRACTICE throughout all sectors in the UK. They are NOT ‘gagging clauses’ and protect both employee and employer. The alternative is compulsory redundancy? NDAs require legal oversight, and employees usually have to find their own – but the employer pays, I believe. Was the college being helpful in providing access to a lawyer? I hope there is a balanced news article coming out soon.

    In cases where there is a performance issue, NDAs should be the exception to the rule, but can save an underperforming employee going through a difficult capability or disciplinary process which could end with no financial help and no reference. It’s only natural that an employee who has experienced this will feel raw, however it is better than leaving with no financial buffer and no reference. The question here is around what the performance issues were. If there weren’t any, then let’s have evidence to support that.

    In terms of the marketing spend, before we all get excited, I’d like to know what that marketing spend included. Internal staff salaries? On costs? Prospectuses? Online content? Learning technology? Reputation rebuilding? Staff culture rebuilding? We all know that teams in colleges have labels which don’t necessarily describe the various functions.

    As to the whistleblowers, why don’t they reveal themselves? What’s to hide?

    Come on FE Week, stop being sensationalist and get some balance. I, for one, would not go near a senior post in an FE College these days – there’s be no way to improve it! And therefore FE will stay the mediocre, Cinderella sector that it is – no risks, no entrepreneurship, no high expectations of performance can be driven through given these imbalanced and unsubstantiated news stories!

    • real facts please

      I politely think you are missing the point, this isn’t purely about NDA’s, if it was you are right, it wouldn’t be anything new.
      It is about a wider issue at Hull with members of SLT acting in very unorthodox and dubious ways, often in ways that would be exposed as unlawful if it wasn’t for the NDA’s, that is the link. You can pass all the judgement you like but if you’re not in the college to experience the true nastiness and hatred displayed by some of these senior people in question then you can’t fully comprehend the full extent of the problem. All it needs to return to the great college it used to be is new leadership, simple. Why should these 2 people in question be subject to the same degrading experience they enforced on so many others ?The alleged opinion around the college now is pretty much everyone is glad they have been exposed and do not want them to return. They are un-defendable .

      • SENSE CHECH

        How do you know I have not worked with these people at Hull? This is a big assumption. A college which has undergone major changes which were necessary to survive will, of course, have fall out. However, the people left working in the college to make it good for the students are to be applauded. Leadership and Management graded ‘good’ on a backdrop of all other areas requiring improvement is testament to the effectiveness of what was being done by those still working at this recovering college. Now it seems that the good work is being derailed… what a pity for the students on the end of this.

        • real facts please

          You don’t know that I was invited to leave?
          I may just support those who have suffered because of their behaviour. Just like SENSE CHECK seems to blindly support their nastiness.

          • real facts please

            Or, I could still work there and be one of the many internal members of staff who have been driven to speak out. You’re assuming it is only ex employees who are fed up of this when it has been proven that many current staff ( managers too ) have decided to speak out.

  4. Richard Banks

    I feel compelled to balance the hysterical, unbalanced and provocative reporting that “FE Week” has entered into in connection with the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

    First, there is no such thing as a gagging order. Instead, settlement agreements (SA) tend to include a clause that serve to limit those to whom the parties may reveal the terms of the SA. On the employee’s side, that tends to be limited to their advising lawyer, and their immediate family. The employer enters into similar restrictions. Without such restrictions, the SA would have no value.

    Second, it tendentious to refer to dozens of pay-offs and NDAs. There will have been a number of settlement SAs entered into, presumably equal to the number of individuals who agreed voluntary redundancy terms with the college. What are colleges supposed to do? Carry on employing more resource than they can afford?

    Third, it is also tendentious to suggest that SAs will have been entered into solely to prevent sex discrimination claims and the like. It used to be that SAs could be written in such a way that they prevented the employee pursuing any claim, on any grounds. Quite rightly, case law was developed that said that the possible causes of a claim must be specified. Accordingly, SAs tend to include a long list of all the potential actions that the SA prohibits. That doesn’t mean that any such potential claim is considered to have any potential merit.

    Fourth, employees entering into a SA have a legal right to consult an independent lawyer on the terms of the SA, who must advise on what potential claims are being given up. The employer has to pay a reasonable amount to enable the employee to seek that advice. The employee is not obliged to sign the SA.

    Fifth, it is one-sided to suggest that SAs only prevent the employee from making derogatory remarks about the employer. SAs usually make this a bi-lateral obligation. Any lawyer not insisting on such bi-lateralism probably isn’t very good.

    Sixth, no-one is obliged to sign a SA. These document mutually-agreed settlements. Both parties gain by SAs. Voluntary redundancy settlements tend to have a higher cash value than compulsory ones. The employer can avoid the cost of fighting spurious claims. The employee can benefit from an agreed reference. And so on. It is for the employee, backed by their union, and by their lawyer, to argue for any amendments to the SA that they see fit. If they don’t like what’s on offer, there is no obligation to sign.

    Beware what you wish for. If SAs are removed from the tool-box, I predict:

    – compulsory redundancies will replace voluntary redundancies: if a college cannot gain from its part of the SA, why bother with them, and why bother offering more generous voluntary terms?

    – colleges will be increasingly unable to balance the books in the way that is, just as in every other sector, vital to their sustainability. The long-term effect will be that everyone loses their job when the institution goes bust

    – the sector will find it increasingly difficult to attract the skilled HR professionals it’s crying out for, as such will, rightly, not want to work with one arm tied behind their back.

    • real facts please

      Some interesting counter arguments, but you are assuming the college sticks to their side of the agreement. Sadly they have not on many occasions, and regularly go against the agreements by filtering out negative comments and suggestions in meetings regarding those who have been exited and before long, the majority of staff have a “version” of that happened via the rumour mill which as always, favours the college. What does the ex employee do in this situation?

  5. David Brentford

    Time for Swithenbank and Milad to face criminal charges, surely fraud, paying out tens of thousands of public money for no legitimate reason, just to cover up bullying

  6. Ex employee

    This is not just now I went through this with Hull college just before she arrived I gave 20 years of my life to them had 5 consecutive years of redundancy threat and then when I asked for voluntary they refused. My mental health suffered, confidence lost I had to sign an order and left with 3 months pay, I had no strength to fight I still cry 3 years on

  7. Yet another ex employee

    What has happened at Hull is sadly a repeat of behaviour at other colleges. Resultant mental health issues in good staff are rife. I was also a casualty of these tactics at another college, promised I would never teach again at the level I was.

  8. Almost Every college I have worked in had non disclosure agreements to protect the College reputation when off loading. Some discrimination cases also ended this way without coming to light. Common knowledge so I am surprised that suddenly everybody is shocked.

  9. Juan Sheet Does Plenty

    Wasn’t it this time last year that a well known figure wrote in TES that “I know all these CEOs/Principals personally and they all care about learners”?

    Kudos to Mr Gravatt for calling out the Bournville fiasco for what it was. I only hope other senior figures in the AoC stop defending the indefensible. Maybe then the arguments for increased funding wont be undermined…

  10. Just a thought

    People have a choice of not accepting the settlement and taking their case to a tribunal to be heard.

    ET will hear their case even if they choose to represent themselves. It does not need to cost much to do so.

  11. Anonymous

    I am surprised that this is a news story. It appeared to me that this was the norm in the sector. It was certainly the norm in the college where I used to work. There are countless numbers of staff who have been paid off over the last three to four years to protect the bullying principal and his bully of a deputy.

  12. I’ve been through a similar scenario but without the pay off or NDA. Made redundant at the whim of senior managers with no formal consultancy period – the first i knew of my redundancy was when i was handed a letter and told the consultancy period had concluded and i had been deemed weaker than a colleague. Needless to say, i wasn’t familiar with redundancy law at that time or it would have been challenged.