It was a normal Italian farewell, says British Council envoy cleared of groping female colleague

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A British Council chief whose “normal Italian farewell” led to him being sacked after he was accused of drunkenly groping a colleague has won an unfair dismissal case.

Paul Sellers, head of the cultural relations body in Italy, was dismissed over accusations he kissed a woman on the lips before “stroking” her breasts as she left a social event at his flat in Rome in 2018. 

But the tribunal heard from several witnesses who said the respected envoy – whose wife and children were next to him at the time of the alleged incident – had given her nothing more than a kiss on each cheek in the traditional Italian style.

The woman, a consular employee, complained to the British Council, which carried out an internal investigation and ultimately fired Mr Sellers after 30 years of service in 2019.

Mr Sellers, who became the British Council’s country director for Italy in 2014, took legal action against the organisation for unfair dismissal. An employment tribunal has now concluded he was subjected to a “seriously flawed” investigation. 

The tribunal found that investigators ignored evidence, dismissed the accounts of six witnesses who saw nothing untoward and instead chose to believe the “hazy” account of the complainant – despite admitting they were not “100 per cent sure what happened”.

Mr Sellers, who held a post that usually comes with an £80,000 salary, is now expected to receive compensation from the British Council over his treatment. 

Probe took a ‘narrow view’ of alleged incident

About 50 people attended the Christmas party on December 16 2018. Mr Sellers was seen dancing after drinking two or three glasses of wine, the tribunal in London was told.

His accuser, named only in proceedings as ZZ, said goodbye to Mr Sellers in the kitchen area around 4.30pm as she left, the hearing was told. The next day, she alleged that she had been sexually harassed.

She told the tribunal: “As I went to kiss him goodbye he kissed me twice on the side of my mouth (rather than the cheek) and then he stroked my breasts with both his hands.

“I was very shocked so I didn’t respond immediately and left the party.”

Mr Sellers, who lived in Rome with wife, was left stunned when informed about the allegations and vehemently denied them.

He told investigators that “people would get a kiss on both cheeks” as they left his flat, but explained he was busy giving Italian farewell greetings – salutos – to lots of individuals and therefore had “no specific recollection” of saying goodbye to ZZ.

Nonetheless, an investigation was launched by the British Council, led by Kate Ewart-Biggs, its deputy chief executive, who concluded she “had no reason to believe” the woman was lying. 

The tribunal, however, found the investigation took a “narrow view” of the alleged incident, failed to explore the alleged contact and the circumstances surrounding it, made no attempt to interview possible witnesses and assumed nobody else saw it.

She accepted ZZ’s account, even though it had changed throughout the investigation, the panel concluded.

Mr Sellers provided witness statements to back up his version of events at the appeal stage, but his case was thrown out by Sir Ciarán Devane, then head of the British Council.

One onlooker, Monica Marziota, who was next to the pair as they said goodbye, said she saw a “completely normal Italian farewell”, adding: “The limited physical contact was brief, friendly and straightforward.”

Employment Judge Bernard Hodgson ruled Mr Sellers had been unfairly dismissed. 

He said: “No reasonable employer would have failed to seek the relevant contemporaneous documentation, or to explore the circumstances of the alleged assault, or to seek relevant evidence from witnesses to the alleged incident.”

He said the evidence from witnesses was, on the face of it, “relevant, clear, and compelling”, adding: “If that evidence had been accepted by the British Council, I can see no rational basis on which it could continue to find there had been a sexual assault, as described by ZZ.”

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