An employment tribunal claim has been brought against a national NHS agency by its former chief executive, who says she was effectively sacked on the basis of anonymous and uninvestigated allegations of bullying.
HSJ revealed the sudden departure of Betsy Bassis from NHS Blood and Transplant in August last year. It came after regulators and the agency’s chair were told of multiple concerns about her leadership.
A tribunal last week heard that allegations had been passed to NHSBT’s freedom to speak up guardian and the Care Quality Commission. The concerns about Ms Bassis included; constant criticism of people; shouting in meetings; suppressing people’s ability to challenge or debate; knee-jerk responses to difficult situations; and making people fearful to raise issues.
In the summer of last year, following a well-led review by the CQC, inspectors told NHSBT’s chair, Peter Wyman, the concerns about Ms Bassis appeared to be “well founded”, and the FTSU guardian expressed the same view. Ms Bassis, who claims unfair dismissal, disputes the allegations.
Mr Wyman, who had joined NHSBT four months previously, told the tribunal a unanimous decision was then made by the board’s non-executives to dismiss Ms Bassis. The former CQC chair said it was an “emergency situation” and “we were compelled to act as quickly as possible”, as the groundswell of concerns made it evident that Ms Bassis was not a “fit and proper person” under the relevant regulations.
He said: “I offered the claimant the opportunity to resign rather than be dismissed…as a gesture of kindness, but explained that the board would not withdraw its decision that the claimant was no longer a fit and proper person, that the employment relationship…would have to end that day, and that we would in future have to tell any other potential employer covered by the regulation that she had been found by us to no longer be a fit and proper person.”
He said an immediate termination was necessary due to concerns Mr Bassis would “lash out” at staff who may have accused her. Some had reported being interrogated by her following their interviews with CQC inspectors.
However, Ms Bassis told the tribunal: “If Peter and the board had concerns about me continuing working, then the correct thing for them to have done would have been to suspend me while a full investigation was carried out and give me a chance to properly answer all the allegations against me.”
She said she had been consoling staff who were upset after the CQC interviews, not intimidating them, and added: “What is most distressing is that no concerns were ever raised with me by Peter Wyman or the CQC. As such, I never had an opportunity to provide a different perspective or, where valid, take steps to apologise and remediate my actions.
“With no investigation or process, I was simply presumed guilty and fired, without any specific examples or primary evidence to back up the allegations against me.”
Ms Bassis told the tribunal she encouraged people to speak up at NHSBT, and that she was shocked by her sacking as she had received discretionary performance bonuses for the previous two years and a strong year-end review in March 2022 from former chair John Pattullo. He said she was a “good CEO with the potential to be a great CEO”.
In his witness statement, Mr Pattullo said there were elements of Ms Bassis’s “very confident North American style” which needed development, adding: “[The] demands of the pandemic revealed gaps in her skillset, in particular her ability to adopt a more flexible, perhaps slightly gentler style of interaction with some employees. I was however convinced that with good support and coaching, she could become a very strong CEO.”
He said Ms Bassis had been appointed to a “very large role relative to her prior experience”, but believed she was developing and “at no point during her time working for me, did I consider her an unfit or improper CEO of NHSBT.”
The tribunal hearing ran from Monday to Thursday last week and the judge is expected to reach a decision later this month.
As previously reported, NHSBT has been embroiled in allegations around racism and bullying in recent years. It settled a racial discrimination claim from one staff member earlier this year and faces another tribunal case from another staff member next week.
Ms Bassis had previously received a “minor misconduct” finding from NHSBT for her part in a recorded conversation with former chair Millie Banerjee.