Employee, 60, wins £13,000 unfair dismissal payout after headbutting multi-millionaire chairman of League Two football club Colchester United
- Robbie Cowling claimed he had been attacked by charity worker Mark Harris
- Mr Harris worked for the club’s ‘Football in the Community’ charitable arm
- Cowling and Harris were swearing at each other in corridor following meeting
- The panel said 60-year-old Mr Cowling called Mr Harris a ‘f***ing c***’
- CCTV footage showed Harris turn back and ‘barge into him, stomach first’
- Harries won a claim for victimisation and will be given a payout of £13,823
A club worker has won a £13,000 unfair dismissal payout after headbutting a multi-millionaire football chairman following a foul-mouthed argument between the pair.
Robbie Cowling, chairman and owner of League Two club Colchester United, claimed he had been attacked by Mark Harris, who worked for the club’s ‘Football in the Community’ charitable arm.
The tribunal heard that Mr Cowling – who is also the chairman of the charity’s trustees – and former PE teacher Mr Harris were swearing at each other in a corridor following a meeting about the latter’s dismissal in 2019.
The panel said 60-year-old Mr Cowling called Mr Harris a ‘f***ing c***’ as the employee was walking away. CCTV footage then showed Mr Harris react by turning back and ‘barging into him, stomach first’.
Mr Cowling claims Mr Harris headbutted him – but this was not suggested by the CCTV.
Mr Harris won a claim for victimisation by being dismissed against Colchester United FC Football in the Community and will be given a payout of £13,823, an employment tribunal heard.
Robbie Cowling, 60, (pictured) chairman and owner of League Two club Colchester United, claimed he had been attacked by Mark Harris, who worked for the club’s ‘Football in the Community’ charitable arm
He had worked 10 hours a week for the charity on a zero hours contract as the community development officer.
Mr Cowling, who has an estimated fortune of £40million, bought a controlling stake in the club in 2006 after making his fortune founding online recruitment company JobServe.
After growing up in Essex, Mr Harris had been a coach in women’s sport and had helped several teams of Tendring Volleyball Club to national titles.
He told the tribunal all went well in his first ten months with the charity, until December 2018 when he supported a female colleague who resigned at her subsequent grievance meeting.
Mr Harris (pictured) won a claim for victimisation, by being dismissed, against Colchester United FC Football in the Community at the tribunal. He will be given a payout of £13,823, an employment tribunal heard
The tribunal found the attitude of Mr Harris’ boss Corin Haines, the charity’s CEO, ‘changed towards him’ after that.
Mr Haines then dismissed him on April 5, 2019, as his role was ‘not viable’.
This was because the traineeship programme he was organising – which was said to be necessary to provide the income needed to pay him – was no longer going to take place.
However, employment judge Paul Housego found the real reason was Mr Harris helping the female colleague at her grievance meeting.
Who is Robbie Cowling and how did he make his fortune?
Robbie Cowling, 60, made most of his fortune from co-founding Jobserve – an internet recruitment service – with his business partner John Witney in 1993.
The organisation, which is based in Colchester, Essex, claims to be the world’s first internet recruitment service.
Robbie Cowling, 60, (pictured) made most of his fortune from co-founding JobServe
By 2001 it was claimed to have controlled up to 80 per cent of the IT recruitment market.
Cowling remains the managing director of the company.
In 2006 he bought Colchester United, after the club had just secured promotion to the Championship – taking over from Peter Heard, who owned the club for nine years.
He became chairman in 2007 and in 2009 he purchased the remaining shares of the club.
His company has close links with the football club, whose stadium is called ‘JobServe Community Stadium’.
The judge said: ‘There is […] a causative link between Mr Harris helping (the colleague) at a grievance meeting, which was partly about discrimination (both disability and gender), causing Mr Haines attitude towards Mr Harris to worsen, leading him to ring fence Mr Harris in the traineeship programme, and to use its failure to dismiss Mr Harris as “not viable”.’
On March 22, 2019, Mr Haines sent documents to Mr Harris showing the traineeship programme would cost £19,975.
The East London Tribunal Hearing Centre heard Mr Harris was not shown as a cost in the programme, but Mr Haines said if it had 10 trainees it would break even – and make a profit of £5,000 with 12.
When it did not attract any applicants, the tribunal heard that Mr Haines used this as an excuse to sack Mr Harris.
The judge said: ‘This was not the reason Mr Harris was dismissed.
‘That was because, now that the project had not received any recruits, Mr Haines was able to use that as the reason for dismissing him, he having decided to do so… because his attitude towards Mr Harris had changed.’
Mr Harris was fired in April 2019. He lodged a grievance the following month which was dismissed on July 13. There was then an appeal, which was heard by Mr Cowling.
Towards the end of a four hour meeting, which was recorded on a memory stick, Mr Cowling asked what Mr Harris wanted out of the grievance.
This was for ‘Mr Haines to be subject to disciplinary action, and given professional guidance’. Mr Harris also wanted an apology from Mr Haines.
He asked for compensation to be agreed for two former colleagues who had left the charity and said he would not discuss his own compensation until theirs was finalised.
The judge said: ‘Mr Cowling was seething over Mr Harris’ demands, particularly the fact he had preconditions relating to others before he would even talk about himself.
‘When he went outside to hand over the memory stick he asked Mr Harris if he had a minute.
‘He told Mr Harris he had sought legal advice and that Mr Harris’ claim was frivolous and that they would go after him for costs.
‘Mr Cowling added that he would defend an Employment Tribunal claim, whatever it cost him.
‘Mr Harris told Mr Cowling that the test was vexatious rather than frivolous, and then became angry, insulting him with foul language. Mr Cowling responded in kind.
‘The dialogue then seems to indicate that Mr Cowling was egging Mr Harris on to hit him, and the CCTV the Tribunal has seen seems to back this up, because Mr Cowling is seen standing with his hands behind his back while they are speaking almost nose to nose.
‘Mr Harris then turned on his heel and walked away.
The pair clashed after Mr Harris was dismissed in April 2019 from the charity and he lodged a grievance the following month. After a four-hour appeal meeting Mr Cowling ‘told Mr Harris he had sought legal advice and that Mr Harris’ claim was frivolous and that they would go after him for costs.’ Pictured: JobServe Community Stadium
‘When he was about 10 metres away Mr Cowling said something, undoubtedly deeply offensive to Mr Harris, who spun round, walked straight back to Mr Cowling and barged into him, stomach first.’
The tribunal decided Mr Cowling most likely called Mr Harris a ‘f****** c***’, as they believed Mr Harris’ account of events.
Both men complained to the police. Mr Cowling said that Mr Harris had headbutted him but the CCTV did not indicate any such contact.
The judge added: ‘Neither Mr Harris nor Mr Cowling come out of this episode with any credit. Mr Harris appeared the more ashamed of the two about the incident.’
The tribunal ruled that Mr Harris had been victimised, by being dismissed and is to be paid £13,822.91.
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