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Why Sellafield HR consultant Alison McDermott turned down £160k hush money

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

This article in the Guardian includes a four minute interview with Alison McDermott, who was brought in to improve the culture at Sellafield but instead became a scapegoat.

We research employment law, are relatively technical, and endeavour to complement mainstream media where appropriate. The Guardian did not report that McDermott had refused an offer £160,000 to settle her grievance, but we will, in the context of explaining employment settlements in general.

Non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements do have their place:

  • An aggrieved ex-employee can cause reputational damage to a business, threatening its profits and market share, unless that employee is formally paid not to.

  • Offers made in mediation as a full and final settlement of the dispute are generally considered a price worth paying for the avoidance of expensive and exhausting litigation in the Tribunals and Courts.

The main reason employers insist that the settlement amount paid to an employee is confidential is to avoid encouraging other disgruntled employees from raising a grievance. For the same reason, there’s an expectation that offers made in mediation, but not accepted, are kept confidential.

There is a dirty secret to this - standover tactics have been used in mediations to force employees, or ex-employees to sign away their rights of free speech. Sometimes little or no money is offered; only blackmail and threats, all under legal privilege.

Why did McDermott not take the £160k and run? Did she expect to get more from the Employment Tribunal and decided to roll the dice? That’s typically what happens when mediations are unsuccessful; for context that’s between 5 and 10% of mediations conducted in New Zealand, or around 700 per year.

No, as she confirmed to us today:

"I refused the offer not because I gambled on more money but because my silence was not for sale."

And we’re talking about a nuclear power plant with a toxic culture, and dysfunctional working relationships increase all kinds of risks to most of Northern Europe if there is a Chernobyl-like incident. If anything goes wrong and an investigation found that a number of whistleblowers including McDermott took hush money, that would be terrible on many levels.

So Alison McDermott turned down the offer of hush money, preserved her unfettered right to free speech, backed herself (even though she lost in the Tribunal) and got media-savvy. And here we are. The “confidential” offer of £160,000 got reported, as both the price Sellafield felt was worth paying for McDermott’s silence, and the price McDermott was willing to pay (by refusing it) to be able to continue to act in the public interest.

Against that backdrop it should not surprise anyone that Sellafield tried to have McDermott’s crowdfunding page taken down.

Here’s the interview again: (4.12)

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