To the delight of many, including the local MP, Sharon Shoesmith has been sacked by Haringey Council. According to the council’s press release, she was dismissed without compensation or pay in lieu of notice.
Now, as any HR manager or employment lawyer will tell you, the only circumstances in which you can sack people without paying them notice is where their behaviour amounts to gross misconduct. In such cases, whatever the employee has done is deemed to be so bad that it effectively nullifies the employment contract, thus releasing the employer from contractual obligations, such as paying in lieu of notice.
So was Sharon Shoesmith guilty of gross misconduct?
I’m not sure that she was.
- Baby P was subjected to low level abuse and neglect by his mother and stepfather of a kind that was sufficent to raise suspicions amongst police and social workers but not to provide the evidence and legal grounds necessary for the council to obtain a care order, as its legal advisors indicated on 25th July 2007, and…
- There was a sudden, unexpected and ultimately fatal escalation in the degree of abuse visited on the child by one of more of the adults living in his household, the presence of two of whom (the mother’s boyfriend and his brother, the supposed lodger) was not known to the authorities until after the child’s death.
- Without social workers being aware of the presence of these two individuals in the household, there was no way that the death of Baby P could have been prevented, given that two police investigations into what appeared to be physicial abuse of the child failed to turn up sufficient evidence either for a prosecution or for care proceedings.
While you might want to take issue with some of these points, the case is clearly not as black-and-white it has been painted in the tabloids.
Add to that the fact that Sharon Shoesmith had never been a social worker. She ended up managing social services after the government’s decision to make local authorities combine education and children’s social services into new super-departments. An ex-teacher and Haringey’s former Director of Education, Sharon Shoesmith found herself in charge of a huge army of social workers. Sure, it was up to her to get to grips with her new responsibilities and to understand the work of social services, but in a huge and diverse department like Haringey Children’s Services, she had little hope of being on top of all the day-to-day operations. These super-departments are still relatively new. I doubt that any local authority has yet fully worked out how to run them effectively. The government, therefore, must bear at least some of the responsibility for creating the chaos which led to this situation.
While individuals should be held responsible for their actions, as Dave Osler says, some of the factors which led to the death of Baby P were systemic. It is very difficult to pin the blame for his death on one individual, apart from those who actually killed the poor child.
Yes, Sharon Shoesmith made mistakes and there were things she could have done which might have prevented the death of Baby P. But gross misconduct? Nah!
I suspect that Haringey’s management took a calculated risk. Directors in local government are usually on at least three month’s notice. With her £100,000 salary, the council would therefore have had to pay Mrs Shoesmith at least £25,000 to go. Realising that any payment would be politically unacceptable, the council had no choice but to dismiss her for gross misconduct, hoping that the threat of more bad publicity will be enough to deter her from going to an employment tribunal.
It will be interesting to see whether that risk pays off. Sharon Shoesmith, whose career is in ruins and who, at age 55, will probably never work again, may decide that she has nothing more to lose by taking her former employer to court.
Were she to do so, I would not want to bet against her winning her case.