Former employee sues Parkway Hospital over alleged unfair dismissal

Mount Elizabeth Hospital, one of the hospitals under Parkway Hospitals, among Singapore's leading private healthcare providers. Source: Mount Elizabeth Hospital

A former employee of one of Singapore’s top private healthcare providers has brought a civil suit against her former employer for allegedly subjecting her to an unfair dismissal over nine months ago whilst she was over four months pregnant.

The former employee of Parkway Hospitals — which manages Gleneagles Hospital, Mount Elizabeth Hospital, and Parkway East Hospital — worked as a Front Office Manager during her tenure from Nov 2014, and was observed to have a good overall employment record up to her dismissal in early March, as seen in her statement of claim dated 7 Jun this year.

“I was dismissed whilst 20 weeks pregnant with my third child and was due in July 2019. As a result of this dismissal, I am unable to find gainful employment being so far along in my pregnancy and this is adding on to the financial strain in my family,” she told TOC in an email last Thu (5 Dec).

The Vice President of Human Resources and Senior Manager of Human Resources of the hospital had allegedly accused her — via verbal communication — of breaching the company’s code of conduct “by inflating her taxi claims and also by routing her taxi claims through her Assistant Manager instead of her supervisor”.

According to the former Parkway Hospital employee’s statement of claim, her task as a Front Office Manager required her to frequently commute from the hospital for “off-site meetings at other hospitals or corporate offices or patient engagement”.

Subsequently, it was a “usual practice” for her to consolidate up to 2 months’ worth of taxi claims and to submit the claims to her supervisor.

In the same meeting at the end of Feb, she was shown an Excel sheet that allegedly listed the trips that she had taken, which she “was unable to verify” as “all the trips listed as the excel sheet also listed trips taken by her Assistant Manager”.

“Further, the Excel sheet was devoid of details and did not contain all necessary details for verification,” her statement of claim read, noting that the claims were made “in relation to consolidated taxi receipts that were dated back in 2018”.

The former Parkway Hospitals employee added that she had routed her taxi claims to her Assistant Manager “for the sake of convenience” upon mutual agreement in light of a previous taxi claim that her supervisor had allegedly denied.

Having requested more time to recall the trips and do further checks, the former Parkway Hospitals employee was offered by the Assistant Manager to have the taxi claims submitted on her behalf, which purportedly “helped ease the Plaintiff’s workload” and to “not have to correspond with her unreasonable supervisor”.

She then agreed to the Assistant Manager’s offer of assistance “in light of her authority to approve similar claims”, according to the statement of claim.

The former Parkway Hospitals employee also alleged that contrary to what took place in the meeting, she was told that the meeting was arranged “as a one-to-one discussion with her supervisor regarding the Key Performance Indicator (KPI)” for this year, and that she was “instructed to print out the KPI list for discussion”. She had accordingly prepared herself for a discussion on her KPI prior to the meeting.

“The sudden confrontation of the above allegations had left the Plaintiff feeling shocked and distraught,” according to the former employee’s statement of claim, adding that the time period between the confrontation and the discussion on the next day “was insufficient for the Plaintiff to recall/recollect/look through evidence of the details as required”.

The former Parkway Hospitals employee also alleged that she was warned twice by her supervisor to not “consult or converse with anyone regarding the investigations”, which she subsequently argued implied that she was not allowed to “fact-check her recollections with anyone regarding events that happened” last year.

“Given the Plaintiff’s state of mind and the surrounding circumstances, it is unreasonable to demand that the Plaintiff would be able to recall all the necessary details to clarify the allegations made against her,” the plaintiff’s statement of claim read.

Plaintiff allegedly wrongfully dismissed without due process, without explanation and the opportunity to appeal against outcomes of “disciplinary” actions

The former Parkway Hospitals employee alleged that only four hours prior to being served the letter of dismissal, she was brought in for “further discussion on the allegations”, and was told that the CEO would be taking over the case due to her supervisor’s “conflict of interest” in the allegations.

She reiterated her position regarding her inability to recall all of the trips except for one particular trip, and was then told to return to her workstation “while deliberations were taking place”.

The plaintiff also stressed that she had practiced the same method of taxi claims even after changing her reporting line from the corporate office to the hospital in Mar this year, and consequently noted that there was no indication by her then-employer that they were dissatisfied with said practice and/or her overall performance as an employee.

Thus, the letter of dismissal served by her employer on 1 Mar this year “without any explanation” and with immediate effect — as well as without due notice of the meetings, and without the opportunity to appeal against the outcome of such disciplinary meetings — constituted a wrongful dismissal, as it was made without adhering to Clauses 16.2 of the Employee Handbook and 3.16 of the Standard Operating Policy (Human Resource), argued the Plaintiff.

“I was asked to return everything on the day and made to sign my clearance form and dismissal letter on the spot,” she told TOC.

This was despite the fact that she was never issued a warning letter, and was never subject to any disciplinary action by Human Resource or the Disciplinary Inquiry Board, whether formally or informally, according to the statement of claim.

“I am in my fifth year of employment with Parkway and I have maintained an excellent record in my conduct and professionalism, which is evident in my performance appraisals where I have scored “4” from 2015-2017 & “3” in 2018 on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest. Thus, I have always exceeded expectations in my performance.

“I have never once been served any disciplinary action [or] verbal warning in my employment in the company, and this incident is damaging to my professional standing as well.

“In the disciplinary proceedings, company protocol dictates that there must be a verbal warning, 1st written warning, 2nd and so forth before termination/dismissal if the employee continues being wilful despite being counselled. This was also not done in my case,” she told TOC.

The former Parkway Hospitals employee also said that she was informed that she is not entitled to her annual leave entitlement accrued last year and this year as a result of the dismissal.

According to her statement of claim, her total unconsumed annual leave entitlement is equal to one months’ salary. She has 20.5 days of annual leave entitlement carried forward from last year.

“Given that the Plaintiff was entering into her fifth year of employment, her annual leave entitlement would have increased to 24 days for the year 2019. The Plaintiff therefore would have 4 days of annual leave entitlement up till 01 March 2019,” the statement of claim read, adding that she should be paid “three months of salary-in-lieu for the notice period”.

The former Parkway Hospitals employee also highlighted that her then-employer was “aware that she was pregnant” at the time and was due to give birth in or around Jul this year, which she argued factors into the wrongful dismissal claim, as she was not able to find “gainful employment” following her dismissal.

“I strongly believe that my dismissal, which was done so hastily in a span of less than 36 hours, was deliberately intended to deprive me of my maternity benefits and also to avoid paying me my rightful notice as stated in my Employment Contract and accrued Annual Leave from 2018 and 2019,” she alleged.

Former employee “lawfully terminated” based on findings pointing to falsification of transport expense claims; pregnancy “irrelevant’ to her dismissal: Parkway Hospitals’ counterclaim

Parkway Hospitals, in its defence and counterclaim dated 2 Jul, said that while the late-Feb meeting was initially “intended to be a routine one-on-one discussion” between the then-employee and her supervisor regarding her KPI, it was brought to their attention that “evidence of the Plaintiff’s wrongful conduct” was uncovered some time after she was informed of the meeting.

Her supervisors had then decided to use the same timeslot to speak to her regarding the matter, on the grounds that doing so would “protect and maintain the confidentiality” of the meeting, in addition to keeping the investigations secret “so that she would not be embarrassed in front of other people”, according to Parkway Hospitals.

“These were measures taken by the Defendant to protect the Plaintiff’s professional image at that stage of investigation,” read Parkway Hospitals’ defence.

Noting that the intention of the meeting was “made clear to the Plaintiff at the beginning of the said meeting” by her supervisor, and in the presence of Vice President of Human Resources and Senior Manager of Human Resources, Parkway Hospitals said that the supervisor had “explained clearly and openly to the Plaintiff that the purpose of the meeting was to conduct a fact-finding exercise as part of the Defendant’s ongoing investigations into” her conduct.

She was then told by her supervisor that Parkway Hospitals had “uncovered evidence that the Plaintiff had inflated her transport expense claims” and “routed her transport expense claims through her Assistant Manager instead of her Supervisor”.

Her two actions, according to Parkway Hospitals’ statement of claim, entailed the following grounds for lawful termination, namely falsification of claims and breach of transport expense claims process respectively.

Parkway Hospitals cited “numerous irregularities” in the plaintiff’s expense claims in relation to her alleged falsification of claims.

“For example, there were a number of instances in which, (i) the distances travelled; and (ii) the duration of travel, for trips between the same two locations would vary very significantly, which strongly suggested that the taxi receipts and/or transport expense claims submitted by the Plaintiff were not for the trips which she had claimed they were for,” Parkway Hospitals argued.

The defendant added that the alleged discrepancies it found “were listed on the Claims Spreadsheet and provided” to the plaintiff as a reference, and were “shaded in a different colour for the Plaintiff’s attention” in a bid to “assist the Plaintiff’s recollection of the claims”.

“The Plaintiff was also told that she was allowed to ask questions during this entire exercise, and this was mentioned again prior to the conclusion of the meeting,” according to Parkway Hospitals, adding that she was “offered the opportunity to explain her wrongful actions”.

Parkway Hospitals added that the supervisor had thanked the plaintiff for her time and cooperation in the investigations, and had allowed the Plaintiff to take the rest of the day off “to recall the purposes for each of the Wrongful Transport Claims, and also to consider if she had any other explanations for her actions” in relation to the aforementioned grounds.

A hard copy of the claims spreadsheet was given to the plaintiff “to take home, so as to aid her in her recollection at home” according to Parkway Hospitals.

“The Supervisor proposed to hold the follow-up meeting at 9.30 am the next day (i.e. 1 March 2019), for the Plaintiff to provide her further explanations,” alleged Parkway Hospitals, to which the plaintiff “did not voice any objection to”.

Parkway Hospitals also refuted the plaintiff’s claim regarding having to make frequent trips under her role, stating that as a “customer service manager in the front office of the Hospital, she was in fact not required to travel out of the Hospital frequently”.

“A front office manager is not typically required to attend meetings outside of the Hospital on as regular a basis as the Plaintiff’s transport expense claims appear to indicate.

“This is another reason why the Defendant’s findings in respect of the Plaintiff’s transport expense claims warranted the seeking of clarification from her,” Parkway Hospitals argued.

Parkway Hospitals added that “the onus at all material times was on the Plaintiff to ensure that she kept proper and meticulous records of her various trips, so as to be able to justify and support her claims for these expenses” regardless of whether she had “elected to submit her transport expense claims in a timely manner, or to consolidate up to 2 months’ worth of claims before submitting them to the Supervisor”.

“Such key information is critical to supporting the Plaintiff’s transport expense claims, as the Defendant had no other way to verify that these were properly incurred in the carrying out of the Plaintiff’s duties as an employee of the Defendant, as opposed to personal trips or matters,” the defendant emphasised.

“The falsification of claims for expenses, wilful cover up of conflict of interest, and insubordination are expressly stated to be Major Offences which may warrant dismissal, under Policy 2.

“Given the results of the Defendant’s thorough internal investigations into the matter, and the Plaintiff’s unequivocal admissions to the Defendant, no further investigations were required and it was thus unnecessary to convene a Board of Inquiry under Policy 2,” stressed Parkway Hospitals.

Parkway Hospitals also argued that its former employee’s pregnancy is “irrelevant” in the circumstances, and that there is “no correlation whatsoever between the termination of the Plaintiff’s employment by the Defendant and her pregnancy.”

The plaintiff, in a reply to Parkway Hospitals’ defence and counterclaim, refuted all of the allegations made by her former employer against her and reiterated the points made in her statement of claim earlier.

Plaintiff seeks recourse with TADM, MOM — but to no avail after Parkway Hospitals allegedly refused to reach any settlement

The former Parkway Hospitals employee told TOC in her email last week that she has “tried to reach an amicable solution” with her former employer by referring her case to the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), upon which Parkway Hospitals was advised to reach a resolution, given that it did not carry out the appropriate processes in the plaintiff’s case.

“However, Parkway has kept delaying the mediation meeting as well as getting back on the settlement,” she alleged, adding that her former employer had refused to reach any settlement after two months, upon which TADM told her that they were “unable to enforce any judgement” despite observing the lack of due process on Parkway Hospitals’ part.

She said that she was then advised to seek advice and mediation from the State Courts.

“The company came back after more than 3 weeks with an offer to settle the matter by changing my dismissal to resignation and 2 months of my salary. This is an absurd offer as my contract states 3 months’ notice and I had about 1 month of accrued leave from 2018,” she alleged.

“Now that we are headed to trial, I am asked to get fellow ex-colleagues to speak up against the abuse. But they are still all employed there and are extremely fearful of speaking out because their jobs will be in jeopardy. We speak of fair employment where we have safe workplaces and whereby we are treated respectfully. But even in such a MNC, it is not done,” she lamented.

Parkway Hospital’s “callous” treatment of expectant employee “highly disturbing”: Plaintiff

The former Parkway Hospitals employee told TOC in her email last week that it is “highly disturbing that a huge healthcare organisation which prides empathy as one of their core values can treat an expectant employee of almost 5 years in such a callous manner”.

She added that her whole ordeal has left her “emotionally depressed and mentally drained that it has not only affect my well-being but also that of my unborn child then”.

The former Parkway Hospitals employee observed that other employees at Parkway Hospitals have allegedly been “managed out of the company” following a redeployment to other departments due to “performance issues”.

“The company has also gone through restructuring in several departments and have also retracted performance bonuses for some staff despite having communicated it out. Many headcounts have been cut with the call centre being outsourced to Malaysia.

“I learnt that after I left the company that my headcount was not replaced and not intended to be replaced. This dismissal was just a guise to deny me of my ML [maternity leave] and cut FTE [full-time equivalent],” alleged the former Parkway Hospitals employee and as stated in her statement of claims.

TOC has reached out to Parkway Hospitals for comments on the matter.

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