Andrew Neil asks ‘what on earth is happening at the National Trust’
Claire Bryant has been embroiled in a three-year battle with the charity since resigning from her role as kitchen gardener at its property Chartwell in Westerham, Kent. She had hoped to become senior gardener having worked at the estate for five years but claims she was “humiliated” in front of members of the public with criticisms raised about her performance in her existing role.
And judges in her employment tribunal unanimously decided Ms Bryant, 63, was “constructively unfairly dismissed” by the charity.
Ms Bryant has now been awarded just over £49,000 in compensation for unfair dismissal, discrimination and harassment, Surrey Live reports.
Speaking since the ruling, Ms Bryant said: “I can honestly say, I have never been closer to a complete nervous breakdown than I have through the last three years. It has been horrendous, absolutely horrendous.
“It has really knocked every ounce of confidence I have got, but for me, it has never, ever been about the money. It’s about being able to stand up for yourself. I wouldn’t want any of my family, or anybody’s family, to have to go through this.”
The tribunal, held remotely via video at Ashford, Kent, upheld complaints of direct discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sex in relation to the senior job Ms Bryant was invited to apply for, and which was given to a male applicant who scored significantly lower than her in the interview process.
The second part of that interview, the tribunal heard, was supposed to feature scenario-based questions.
But Ms Bryant said she was instead embarrassed outside the café in front of members of the public, despite her previous four Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs) being rated as “exceptional” or “very good”, with “high potential”.
Claire Bryant said the past three years have been “horrendous”
Speaking further about the judgement, Ms Bryant added: “I felt relief that I didn’t have to feel intimidated or afraid anymore, and relief that I had my voice heard because I had been shouting into the wind for three years.”
She said the National Trust “completely broke [her] spirit” and it will take “a very long time” for her to recover.
As well as her own duties as kitchen gardener, Ms Bryant, from Tatsfield, Surrey, managed a team of up to 50 volunteers and said she “absolutely loved” her job. Having started out as a garden volunteer in 2011, she became employed on a temporary basis as kitchen gardener in 2012, but secured the job permanently in 2013.
She won numerous awards during her employment, and the work of her volunteer team meant the Chartwell kitchen garden was filmed for a national TV advert.
However, as time went on, she claims she was made to feel “worthless”.
Ms Bryant was a gardener at the family home of Winston Churchill
The volunteer believes tensions first arose towards the end of 2017 due to an issue surrounding the length of volunteers’ tea breaks – referred to as “tea break-gate” in her correspondence with the National Trust.
She explained that volunteers would come to work at Chartwell for up to eight hours a day and would often take tea breaks, some of which lasted longer than they should have.
When complaints about the length of these breaks from senior staff were made, Ms Bryant said she “challenged” them and defended the volunteers, and she thinks that is when her “card was marked”.
She said: “The volunteers were rightly very upset. They were giving their time for free; they would come in for seven to eight hours a day, regardless of the weather, and they would never abuse the tea breaks.
“Every now and then, there would be times where you would have to say, ‘guys can we just tighten up the tea breaks a bit’ and they would say ‘absolutely’. They were always fine with it.
“I raised this, and I think that is probably where the difficulty started, because I suspect that [senior staff] took exception to me challenging them. It was ridiculous, it was like a ‘tea break-gate’.”
Ms Bryant first started working for the National Trust as a garden volunteer in 2011
Ms Bryant said she was encouraged to apply for the role of senior gardener and she submitted her application in March 2018. At this point she had more than 10 years of professional gardening experience both in the public and private sector.
In the first round of formal interviews on May 11, 2018, she scored 22.5 out of 30 and 27.5 out of 30 in two separate interviews.
Ms Bryant later discovered, just days before the tribunal, that the external male candidate who was offered the job scored 16.5 out of 30 for both.
She said she thought the first stage “went well”, and she was subsequently invited for an “informal chat” on May 17, as the applicants had been reduced from four down to two.
When she arrived, she was surprised to discover the meeting was being held outside the Chartwell café in front of members of the public. She described the meeting as a “character assassination”.
“I felt as though I was being attacked,” she said. “It was a very, very uncomfortable conversation and I was feeling extremely upset about the way the interview was conducted.
“It seemed inappropriate for it to be held in an outdoor space. If it was an ‘informal chat’, as I was told, then I can understand that, but this was not an informal chat.”
She continued: “I thought the questions that were asked were completely imbalanced as they were directly related to my current role, whereas the other candidate, who was not an internal candidate, couldn’t have been judged on his performance.”
The woman has won £50,000 in compensation
Ms Bryant said this role had been advertised four times previously and a woman had never been hired.
Claire raised concerns about the ‘informal chat’ with senior staff and said it became clear that there were “many objections about [her] work” – none of which were based on facts, she says.
She felt that her accomplishments, dedication, and previous PDRs were not taken into consideration for the new role.
She added: “I was completely shaken about what had happened, it was so upsetting. I came home from work on the Saturday evening [May 19] and I thought ‘I am worth more than this’; I thought ‘I don’t want to work for an environment that doesn’t value me’.”
Ms Bryant emailed her resignation to the charity on May 20 stating that it was due to the way she had been treated, and because she had “no confidence that a truthful resolution would be found”.
In her email, she said: “It is evident from the events of the last few weeks that I am not respected for my knowledge, skills or ability and as such I have decided to make your decision simpler by removing myself from the application process and now wish to hand in my resignation.”
Claire was signed off work by her GP with stress and anxiety and her exit interview was eventually conducted on June 20. She left feeling like nobody would listen to her.
Ms Bryant said she came close to a ‘complete nervous breakdown’
Ms Bryant wrote to the director general on July 13 and asked for an investigation to be carried out “into the use of bullying tactics by the senior management” within the Chartwell portfolio.
On August 16, she received a response saying the director general had “concluded that this was undertaken in accordance with our recruitment guidelines.”
It added: “I have found no evidence of bullying or concerns regarding management methods at Chartwell.”
Claire said this is when she decided to take the National Trust to a tribunal.
The compensation was broken down into seven parts, including a basic award, compensation for loss of earnings, counselling costs, compensation for injury to feelings, and uplift in respect of tax.
However, on July 9 this year, Ms Bryant said she received a payment of £41,866.93 from the National Trust – a shortfall of £7,430.31, which she queried.
On July 13, she was told via email that the National Trust believes that, in order to comply with HMRC rules, it is obliged to apply an emergency tax code, despite the remedy including an amount to cover tax.
Ms Bryant said she will now have to wait until April next year to claim this money back, but she is investigating the deduction. She feels the charity “just wanted to have the last word”.
She said it will take time for her to move forward and she has recently completed her Level 3 course in counselling. She hopes to one day combine counselling with horticulture and do ecotherapy in an environment that she trusts.
Ministry of Justice has been asked whether this was in breach of the judgement but a spokesperson said they would not comment and that it was a matter for Claire to raise with the tribunal judges.
She added: “There’s light, and I have always felt the same way with every challenge that has come my way – at the time it feels awful, but when you look backwards, you think ‘if I’d have not gone through that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now’.”
The National Trust refused to respond to a series of questions from SurreyLive regarding Claire’s case, but a spokesperson said: “While we are clearly disappointed by the decision of the tribunal, we respect the judgement.
“However, the judge did make it clear in the remedy judgement that the discrimination was not deliberate and that it was a clear case of unconscious bias.”