Network Rail HR director goes way off track

An independent report largely exonerates ex-boss Iain Coucher - but is damning about the behaviour of outgoing HR director Peter Bennett...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Anthony White, the QC looking into union allegations of misuse of public funds at National Rail, has published his report - and it's generally good news for former chief executive Iain Coucher, who's been completely cleared of all suggestions of financial impropriety. However, White did suggest there were some serious management failings over the failure to address the antics of outgoing HR director Peter Bennett - who seems to have made a habit of sexist (and sometimes even racist) behaviour. Not exactly the kind of example you want your senior HR person to be setting...

According to White's report, Network Rail has basically admitted to a string of 'serious' misdemeanours by Bennett, over an extended period. Apparently he described one senior female employee who had brought a sex discrimination claim against the company as a 'silly cow' (er, QED?) while an ex-member of staff who'd won a race discrimination case at tribunal was referred to as a 'silly f*****g black b***h'. He also apparently kissed another female employee while she was on the phone to her husband. What’s more, about the best response he could come up with to a string of allegations like this was that he couldn't recall saying them – which, as White points out, hardly suggests they were out of character. In a submission to one tribunal, he even claimed that one suggestive remark he was accused of making 'would not have been unwanted'. You get the picture.

But what clearly astonished White is that Network Rail appears to have done nothing whatsoever about it. There was no formal disciplinary action - Coucher supposedly spoke to Bennett about his conduct after a discrimination claim by Victoria Lydford, a senior HR manager, but there was no record made of the conversation. After settling the case at the advice of their lawyers (with an amount greater than she would probably have received at tribunal, suggesting they were keen to keep this behind closed doors), there was no follow-up review. And despite promising to review its diversity and equal opportunities training, White believes no such review actually took place.

Lots of today's headlines seem to have focused on the fact that Coucher has been exonerated of the charges made by the TSSA union that he received illicit payments from Network Rail and misappropriated millions in public funds to pay off outgoing staff; White accepted that he received a generous car and housing allowance, but found that all the other accusations were groundless. Coucher clearly did agree to pay off staff to get them out the door - but the sums involved were not as large as the union suggested, and White did not consider this an inappropriate use of funds in light of the rapid change process that was underway at Network Rail.

The one exception, however, was the case of Lydford. Here, White argues that because the pay-off was higher than it would have been at tribunal, and because it was clearly made to cover up Bennett's conduct and the company's failure to deal with it, this was a misuse of public funds. Equally, it's hard to enforce a company-wide discrimination policy when your HR director is openly and regularly flaunting it - thus leaving the company exposed to more such claims in the future. For all of this, Coucher must bear responsibility.

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