British Council chief in Italy who was wrongly fired over ‘groping’ wins £300k and job back

The director of the British Council in Italy, who was wrongfully sacked after being accused of drunkenly groping an embassy worker’s breasts at a party, has had his job back, as well as £300,000 for unfair dismissal.

Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman on the lips and ‘caressing’ her breasts with both hands as she left a Christmas party he was hosting at his Rome flat.

The respected envoy, whose wife and children were with him at the time of the alleged incident, denied giving him more 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 top post after 30 years of service at the British Council.

An employment court concluded that investigators ignored the evidence, dismissed accounts from six witnesses who saw nothing wrong, and instead chose to believe the woman’s “confusing” account despite admitting they were not “100 percent sure.” of what happened.”

After winning his case for wrongful dismissal, Mr Sellers demanded that he be reinstated at £70,000 a year.

Labor judge Bernard Hodgson has now ruled that the British Council, which resisted the move, must rehire him as a country director or another senior post abroad, but not in Italy.

It must also pay him for more than three years of lost wages and he will also receive compensation that is likely to be closer to £300,000.

Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman on the lips and 'caressing' her breasts with both hands as she left a Christmas party he was hosting at his Rome flat.

Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman on the lips and ‘caressing’ her breasts with both hands as she left a Christmas party he was hosting at his Rome flat.

At the original hearing in central London last November, Sellers was said to have been appointed British Council country director for Italy in 2014 and was living in Rome with his wife Isadora Papadrakakis.

About 50 people attended the Christmas party they hosted on December 16, 2018, and the court heard that 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 4:30 pm when she left and the next day alleged that she was sexually harassed.

ZZ, who said Mr Sellers was “pretty drunk”, said: “Around 4:30pm, when the party was winding down, I decided to leave and went to thank Paul.

When I went to kiss him goodbye, he kissed me twice on the side of the mouth (instead of the cheek) and then caressed my breasts with both hands.

“I was very shaken, so I didn’t respond right away and left the party. There were other people in the room, but I don’t know if they witnessed it.

After the complaint was filed, Ken O’Flaherty, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said the alleged groping was “clearly deliberate” and even said Mr Sellers had been “erratic and unusually emotional” in recent months. and warranted an investigation.

Mr. Sellers was stunned when told of the allegations and vehemently denied them.

“People would get a kiss on both cheeks,” he told investigators as he explained that he was busy giving Italian parting greetings – salutos – to people as they left his apartment, adding that he “had no specific recollection” of saying goodbye to ZZ.

His wife said that ZZ was “new and not really integrated into the embassy” and “had the impression that ZZ was not in a very good mood”.

Mrs. Papadrakakis was “sure that Mr. Sellers would not lay a hand on [ZZ]he believed that ZZ was “dissatisfied with the work of the embassy” and said that “it may be conservative with the Italian style of greeting”.

British Council Deputy Chief Executive Kate Ewart-Biggs led the investigation that led to Sellers’ sacking in May 2019.

But the court found that Ms Ewart-Biggs had a “limited view” of the incident, did not explore the alleged contact and the circumstances surrounding it, did not attempt to interview potential witnesses and assumed no one else saw it.

She accepted ZZ’s account even though it had changed throughout the investigation, the panel concluded. Investigators also did not look for text messages that may have supported her claims.

Sellers was appointed British Council country director for Italy in 2014 and lived in Rome with his wife Isadora Papadrakakis (pictured)

The British Council in Rome and its roof garden.  The organization was founded under a royal charter in 1934 to promote cultural and educational cooperation between the UK and other countries.

The British Council in Rome and its roof garden.  The organization was founded under a royal charter in 1934 to promote cultural and educational cooperation between the UK and other countries.

The British Council in Rome and its roof garden. The organization was founded under a royal charter in 1934 to promote cultural and educational cooperation between the UK and other countries.

Mr Sellers provided witness statements to support his version of events at the appeal stage, but Sir Ciarán Devane, then President of the Council, dismissed his case.

An onlooker, Monica Marziota, who was with the couple when they said their goodbyes, said she saw a “completely normal Italian farewell greeting or ‘saluto'”.

But Ms. Marziota’s account, along with evidence from five other witnesses, was not considered, the court heard.

Labor Judge Hodgson criticized the British Council investigation and ruled that Mr Sellers had been unfairly dismissed.

At a hearing earlier this month, Mr Sellers applied to be reinstated, a request which was ‘strongly’ opposed by the British Council.

He argued that after a round of redundancies and a reduction in duties, rehiring Mr. Sellers would lead to “overstaffing”.

The British Council also said it had lost “confidence” in him after commissioning a new report following the original court ruling 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, since the Italy position is currently filled, he said it would not be appropriate to return his old job.

Ordering Sellers to be rehired by the British Council in another senior position, he said: “There are jobs… which are suitable for (Mr Sellers) and to which he could be appointed immediately.”

‘The fact that the (Council) prefers to appoint someone else is not in itself conclusive.

‘I am not satisfied that the (Board) has explored the possibility of (Mr Sellers) being rehired in a specific position working on a project, as he may have anticipated would be a possibility when his tenure as director of country.

‘I am not convinced that an undue burden is placed on (Board) by rehiring (Mr Sellers). It’s clear there are roles he could now be assigned to.’

A hearing to determine Mr. Sellers’ compensation will take place at a later date.

The hearing was told that the British Council expects to have to pay compensation of at least £282,603.40, an amount that does not take into account any breaches of best workplace practice it may have committed.

The British Council was founded under a royal charter in 1934 to promote cultural and educational cooperation between the UK and other countries.

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