by Stuart Bathgate in Houston
AFTER a week of virtual silence from the SRU following The Offside Line’s revelation that Keith Russell had won his claim for unfair dismissal, the governing body has announced that it is to hold a review of the affair. Both the circumstances that led to the departure of the former director of domestic rugby and the criticisms of the SRU made by the judge hearing the case will be assessed by the review, to be chaired by the Union’s non-executive Lesley Thomson, a QC and a former Solicitor General for Scotland.
The announcement came in a joint statement from the Scottish Rugby Council and Board, the two bodies that are tasked with overseeing the actions of the senior employees of the union, including chief executive Mark Dodson. “We acknowledge the findings of the recent employment tribunal,” the statement read. “Both Board and Council believe the terms and outcome of the judgement require further and important consideration.
“On Friday 8 June the Chairman of the Board, Colin Grassie, instigated a full review to look into the sequence of events that led to the tribunal and matters in respect of the employment tribunal findings.
“This will be concluded as expediently as is practicable. For the purposes of the process Ms Thomson will take independent advice and will have available to her any resources as required.”
Support for the Chief Executive
The lengthy statement did not spell out which specific events it thought should be looked into, nor did it offer any implicit criticism of Dodson or any other member of staff. Indeed, the last sentence reads: “In conclusion we wish to place on record our full support for our executive and staff.”
Dodson and SRU president Rob Flockhart held two media briefings in Houston yesterday, one for the BBC and another for print and online journalists including this reporter. Dominic McKay, the SRU’s chief operating officer, was also present but took no active part in proceedings.
“I can assure you it will be robust,” Flockhart said of the forthcoming inquiry. “Lesley has been given full brief to take outside advice both legal and business. I anticipate that we will have a robust report, which board and then council will look at very carefully. We will then act on any recommendations that come out of that.
“It won’t be up to the chief executive, it will be up to the board and council to take that forward. I have no doubt she won’t get anything wrong: she is a hugely impressive lady with a hugely successful career. I have no doubt at all we will be acting on the recommendations of that report.
“I really do not understand the suggestion that Council and Board do not have an oversight situation,” Flockhart continued, responding to one of the central concerns voiced by Russell – that Dodson was able to push through his policies without proper scrutiny. “We have very, very robust quarterly meetings where the Council review both the executive and the Board. I’ve sat on the Board. There are fairly strong non-executive directors on the board who do indeed question the executive at all times.
“I stand behind what Mark has done up to date, subject to this review of the tribunal. Mark and I have had some very serious discussions if not disagreements over the last two years. He has won some, I’ve won some, and some we’ve agreed to find a way to work through. The Board scrutinises him, Council scrutinises him, he is forceful, he makes his points strongly.”
A non-disclosure of NDAs
Russell and others, however, have suggested that Dodson makes his points too strongly at times, and that a culture exists within the Union whereby critics are silenced, and some departing employees are coerced into signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). The very nature of such agreements means that the names of signatories are not made public, but both Dodson and Flockhart went further by declining to mention the number of signatories.
“Those are employment matters and we don’t comment on those,” Dodson said. “In a business of this size and complexity you have to have a human resources response to all kind of situations.
“We never comment on individual employment matters. We never do that. We’re unable to – we choose not to comment. Those are the things that will be looked at by the review, and they’ll come back.”
Flockhart backed up that stance, saying: “Out of respect for employees, you cannot make any sort of statement in those circumstances. I’m absolutely confident it will be part of the review situation.”
Asked if he was comfortable with the impression that the SRU was secretive, Flockhart added: “I am not comfortable at all. I wouldn’t stand . . . Twice I have had situations with previous groups at Murrayfield which have behaved completely unacceptably in my view. I would like you to think that I stood up to them and change happened.”
The Enquiry – scope and timescales
The review will be able to examine the use of NDAs and any other practices deemed relevant to the Russell case. Flockhart declined to give a precise timescale for completion of the report, and it remains to be seen whether all of it will be published or if parts will be redacted on the grounds of employee confidentiality.
“The timescale – it is going to take as long as it takes. There are time constraints obviously given our board meeting next month and an annual general meeting [in August]. There is no intention under any circumstances to hurry this through just to get a report out. Once that comes to hand, we will have to discover what the terms of that report are and how much can be put out to the public.”
While insisting that he had never contemplated resigning as a result of the Russell tribunal, Dodson expressed a degree of contrition about an affair that has damaged his standing in the game. “I’m sorry we’ve arrived at this regrettable situation,” he said.
“We’re learning lessons and we will learn lessons from what the review recommends. I have never had any personal animosity with Keith and I wish him well in the future. I’m just disappointed that we couldn’t find a means of resolving the matter before it went to the tribunal.”