Nottingham Castle Trust is facing questions over its governance after allegations of bullying, harassment and sexually inappropriate behaviour made by its former CEO came to light at a preliminary tribunal hearing for wrongful dismissal.
Sara Blair-Manning made the allegations at the hearing on 29 September, at which she lost an initial claim for interim relief to cover her salary during the tribunal. She is continuing to pursue her claim for wrongful dismissal.
Museums Journal understands that national funding bodies were due to hold high level meetings this week to discuss concerns over the trust – which opened in June after a £30m redevelopment – following Blair-Manning’s dismissal and the alleged racist incident that took place at the castle on 17 August.
Blair-Manning, who has worked in the cultural sector for 27 years, was dismissed from her post as CEO on 13 August. In a legal letter to the board of trustees sent a month earlier, on 14 July, she raised significant concerns about her employment and the “substandard governance of the charity”.
Blair-Manning alleged that she had been “consistently bullied and harassed”, and that she had the impression that the board “neither trusts nor accepts the experience and expertise of [the senior leadership] team simply because they are female”. She also claimed a member of the trustee board had behaved “in a sexually inappropriate fashion” towards an external female colleague.
Blair-Manning said in the letter that these issues “demonstrate a lack of appropriate skills, experience, and expertise in relation to the operation of the charity, and make clear that the current board of trustees is not fit for purpose”. She said she was “willing to participate in an independent investigation into the concerns raised”.
Blair-Manning also claimed that several trustees had exceeded their terms without being reappointed and said the board had abandoned training on trustee succession planning.
Blair-Manning was suspended from her post on 2 August and dismissed at a subsequent disciplinary hearing. She was told that: “In principle the board has for some time felt that you have not aligned with our strategic plans and that you did not respect the board’s decisions. It has meant that the board has lost trust and confidence in your leadership of the team at the castle.”
Blair-Manning is claiming wrongful dismissal, saying she was not told of the charges against her, she was not warned that it was a disciplinary hearing, it was over in a few minutes and she was given no right of appeal. She says her staff team and a member of Nottingham City Council – which previously ran the castle – had expressed full confidence in her leadership prior to her dismissal.
Blair-Manning says her allegations about the behaviour of board members were not investigated. She has called for senior board members to step down and for an “open and transparent” recruitment process to find their successors.
Blair-Manning’s application for interim relief was dismissed by the judge on the grounds that “the respondent pointed to the harm that may be done to the reputation and honour of the trustee. Beyond that bare assertion, the respondent has not made further submissions or provided any further evidence in terms of what harm may be done”.
The judge said that Blair-Manning had not provided particulars of her allegation of sexually inappropriate behaviour and the tribunal had rejected her application in order to make clear that “any allegation in relation to that issue is an unproven allegation at this stage”.
A spokeswoman for the trust said it could not comment further under legal advice. The spokeswoman said on behalf of the board: “I can confirm that 29 September 2021 saw a decision on the Employment Tribunal Interim Relief application involving Nottingham Castle Trust. Judge Rachel Broughton dismissed the application; a decision that has been welcomed by the trust.
“The trust would like to highlight the many findings made by the judge in relation to the dismissed application and strongly denies all allegations. No further comment is possible at this time due to the ongoing employment tribunal claim which the trust believes to be without merit and is committed to defending vigorously.”