British Council chief wrongly fired over 'groping' wins £300,000
British Council chief in Italy who was wrongly fired after being accused of drunkenly groping an embassy worker’s breasts during ‘Italian farewell’ at party wins £300,000 for unfair dismissal and gets his job back
- Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman and ‘stroking’ her breasts
- Respected envoy denied giving her anything other than a kiss on each cheek
- He was subjected to ‘seriously flawed’ probe and sacked after 30 years’ service
- Investigators ignored evidence and chose to believe woman’s ‘hazy’ account
- British Council now told it must re-engage him in senior position – but not in Italy
The head of the British Council in Italy who was wrongly fired after being accused of drunkenly groping an embassy worker’s breasts at a party has won his job back – as well as £300,000 for unfair dismissal.
Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman on the lips and ‘stroking’ her breasts with two hands when she left a Christmas party he hosted at his flat in Rome.
The respected envoy – whose wife and children were next to him at the time of the alleged incident – denied giving her anything other than a kiss on each cheek in a traditional ‘Italian farewell’.
But after she complained of sexual harassment, he was subjected to a ‘seriously flawed’ investigation and sacked from his senior role after 30 years service to the British Council.
An employment tribunal concluded that investigators ignored evidence, dismissed the accounts of six witnesses who saw nothing untoward, and instead chose to believe the ‘hazy’ account of the woman despite admitting they were not ‘100 per cent sure what happened’.
After winning his case for unfair dismissal, Mr Sellers demanded he be re-instated to the £70,000 a year job.
Employment Judge Bernard Hodgson has now ruled that the British Council – which resisted the move – must re-engage him as a country director or other senior position abroad – but not in Italy.
It must also pay him for more than three years’ missed salary and he will also receive compensation likely to approach £300,000.
Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman on the lips and ‘stroking’ her breasts with two hands when she left a Christmas party he hosted at his flat in Rome
The original hearing in central London last November was told Mr Sellers was appointed British Council country director for Italy in 2014 and lived in Rome with wife Isadora Papadrakakis.
Around 50 people attended the Christmas party they threw on December 16, 2018, and the tribunal heard Mr Sellers drank ‘two or three’ glasses of wine and was seen dancing.
His accuser, named only as ‘ZZ’, said goodbye to Mr Sellers in the kitchen area around 4.30pm as she left and the next day alleged she was sexually harassed.
ZZ, who said Mr Sellers was ‘quite drunk’, claimed: ‘At about 4:30 pm as the party was winding down I decided to leave and I went to thank Paul.
‘As I went to kiss him goodbye he kissed me twice on the side of my mouth (rather than the cheek) and then he stroked my breasts with both his hands.
‘I was very shocked so I didn’t respond immediately and left the party. There were other people in the room but I do not know if they witnessed it.’
After the complaint was made, Ken O’Flaherty, the embassy’s deputy head of mission, said the alleged groping was ‘clearly deliberate’ and even said Mr Sellers had been ‘erratic and uncharacteristically emotional’ in recent months and warranted investigation.
Mr Sellers was left stunned when informed about the allegations and vehemently denied them.
‘People would get a kiss on both cheeks’, he told investigators as he explained he was busy giving Italian farewell greetings – salutos – to people as they left his flat, adding that he had ‘no specific recollection’ of saying bye to ZZ.
His wife said ZZ was ‘new and not really integrated into the embassy’ and ‘had the impression ZZ was not in high spirits’.
Ms Papadrakakis was ‘certain Mr Sellers wouldn’t lay a hand on [ZZ], believed ZZ was ‘disgruntled about embassy work’ and said ‘she may be conservative about the Italian style of greeting’.
Deputy chief executive of the British Council, Kate Ewart-Biggs, headed-up the investigation which led to Mr Sellers’ dismissal in May 2019.
But the tribunal found Ms Ewart-Biggs took a ‘narrow view’ of the incident, failed to explore the alleged contact and the circumstances surrounding it, made no attempt to interview possible witnesses and assumed nobody else saw it.
She accepted ZZ’s account even though it had changed throughout the investigation, the panel concluded. Text messages that may have backed up her claims were also not sought by investigators.
The British Council in Rome and their roof garden. The organisation was founded under royal charter in 1934 to promote cultural and educational co-operation between the UK and other countries
Mr Sellers provided witness statements to back up his version of events at the appeal stage – but his case was thrown out by Sir Ciarán Devane, then head of the Council.
One onlooker, Monica Marziota, who was next to the pair as they said goodbye, said she saw a ‘completely normal Italian farewell greeting or ‘saluto’ ‘.
But Miss Marziota’s account – along with evidence from five other witnesses – was not considered, the tribunal heard.
Employment Judge Hodgson slammed the British Council’s investigation and ruled Mr Sellers had been unfairly dismissed.
At a hearing earlier this month Mr Sellers applied to be re-instated, a request which the British Council objected to ‘strongly’.
It argued that following a round of redundancies and a reduction in roles, re-employing Mr Sellers would lead to ‘over staffing’.
Mr Sellers was appointed British Council country director for Italy in 2014 and lived in Rome with wife Isadora Papadrakakis (pictured)
The British Council also said it had lost ‘trust and confidence’ in him after commissioning a new report following the tribunal’s original judgement which concluded that the assault had indeed taken place.
Judge Hodgson said the new report was even more flawed than the first investigation and dismissed its findings.
However, as the Italy post is currently filled he said it would not be appropriate to give him his old job back.
Ordering Mr Sellers be re-engaged by the British Council in another senior role instead, he said: ‘There are jobs…which are suitable for (Mr Sellers), and to which he could be appointed immediately.
‘The fact that the (Council) may prefer to appoint someone else, is not itself conclusive.
‘I am not satisfied that the (Council) has explored the possibility of (Mr Sellers) being re-engaged into a specific position working on a project, as he may have envisaged would be a possibility when his tenure as a country director concluded.
‘I am not satisfied that undue burden is placed on the (Council) by re-engaging (Mr Sellers). It is clear that there are roles to which he could now be assigned.’
A hearing to determine Mr Sellers’ compensation will take place at a later date.
The hearing was told The British Council is expecting to have to pay an award of at least £282,603.40, an amount that doesn’t take into account any breaches of recommended workplace practices it might have committed.
The British Council was founded under royal charter in 1934 to promote cultural and educational co-operation between the UK and other countries.
Source: Read Full Article