When It May Be Critically Important to Make a Grievance or Complaint in the Workplace

workplace grievance

Mary suffered in silence in her job for a long time-nearly 12 months, in fact. She was brave, and hard working, and stoic and just got on with it.

Her boss was a headcase, a bully with no regard for the dignity or feelings of those around him.

He wanted to get the job done, he wanted results, he wanted them now, and if you wanted to give him some cock and bull story or excuses, well ‘you know where the door is’.

At first, she joked with her husband and friends that she now worked in ‘Dante’s Inferno’. She called him ‘Lucifer’. The joke soon wore thin, however.

And eventually, Mary-or more accurately, her health-just broke down.

The first sign was her mood-it became irritable at home and she was much more inclined to snap at her husband and the kids. She was impatient and tired all the time and devoid of energy or interest in stuff outside work.

Then it insidiously crept into her bedroom and she had trouble sleeping.

At night her mind would race as she lay in bed thinking about what she had done in work that day, what she had and hadn’t achieved, what was on the calendar tomorrow, had she forgotten or overlooked anything, how long can she endure more of this crap, should she just quit and walk away.

She had worked hard for this career, did well in college, did well in her previous jobs, always performed well and had good performance reviews, and did well in this one until he-Lucifer- arrived.

At first, she thought it was just a personality or ‘style’ issue, a clash of approaches/cultures, and she was determined she would get used to him, and his moods. She would adapt. She was strong, resilient, tough. She hadn’t failed before.

Breakdown

One day in November, however, she just couldn’t face it. She was literally frozen with fear and apprehension and went to her doctor. Her GP listened patiently and sympathetically for 45 minutes while Mary poured her heart out. He told her he had no doubt- she was suffering from severe stress and anxiety as a consequence of the issues in the workplace and she needed a break immediately. He also referred her to a psychiatrist.

Six months later Mary came to see me. She was still off work and her condition had only improved very marginally. She could not see any way under the sun she could return to that job under that man and wanted to enquire about her legal options.

She told me the kids wanted their mammy back, and she could not see this happening if she returned to the same workplace. This time she felt she had to walk away. It simply wasn’t worth it.

She’d get another job. But had she any legal redress, she enquired.

The Legal Options

This type of situation is not uncommon and the most obvious options would be one or all of the following:

  1. A claim for constructive dismissal
  2. A personal injury claim
  3. A breach of contract claim

She had one major problem, however, no matter which way she approached the problem: she never complained. Not formally, not informally-she just ‘got on with it’.

To succeed with any of these claims she will have a difficult time overcoming the one fatal flaw in her case: the employer will claim ‘we never knew there was a problem, for she never complained’.

And this is a big problem for her.

No doubt, the employer should know what is going on in the workplace, and is obliged to know. But when the accusation is thrown at the employer the employer will argue that he acted reasonably and did what any employer would do in circumstances where no complaint was made: nothing.

Mary may claim that she did not get a copy of the staff handbook, or did not know how to make a complaint, or did not know what procedure to use, or did not know what the grievance procedure involved.

But this will be a problem. Since we were kids we know how to make complaint. And that complaint, at a minimum, would have helped Mary’s situation immensely.

It would have been better again if she had made a formal written complaint in accordance with the grievance or dignity at work procedure in the workplace. And if her complaint was not dealt with properly she could have followed up.

But she needed to complain. And then exhausted the internal procedures open to her. Because the problems she faces are as follows:

Constructive Dismissal

Generally, to win a claim for constructive dismissal, you must show you acted reasonably before quitting your job. This involves

  1. Telling the employer that you have an issue or problem
  2. Giving him the chance to rectify the situation
  3. Exhaust the internal procedure
  4. After this you can leave the job, bring a case for constructive dismissal, and claim that you acted reasonably by virtue of taking all the steps outlined here.

Otherwise, you face the problem of the employer saying, ‘he/she never told me there was a problem-we would have fixed it if we knew’.

Personal Injury Claim

To win a personal injury claim against your employer you need to show:

  1. You have suffered a personal injury-in Mary’s case, a psychological or psychiatric injury
  2. The employer was negligent

To prove the employer was negligent you will need to show that he did not act reasonably. This is easier to prove when you have made a complaint to the employer and he does nothing. Then you can claim he did not act reasonably, or at all.

But if you don’t make a complaint? It will be hard to prove the employer failed to act reasonably. And harder, therefore, to prove negligence and win your case.

Conclusion

I am not telling you that you should be making complaints or raising grievances in the workplace at the drop of a hat.

You are required to have a certain degree of robustness in the normal day to day activities in the workplace. There will be a certain element of rough and tumble in the normal interactions between human beings.

But if you at some point in the future want to bring a claim or legal proceedings against your employer, and you wish to prove you had no choice but to leave the job or suffered a personal injury and he is liable, you will need to show some evidence of difficulties in the workplace and your attempts to resolve the problem.

Suffering in silence is not advisable from a health or legal perspective. If you do there is a good chance that, as the old Turkish proverb goes, the dogs will bark but the caravan will move on.

Reinstatement of Dismissed Employee-A Warning for Employers

unfair dismissal-1

Are you an employer?

If you have dismissed an employee you are almost certainly aware that a successful claim against you by your former employee can lead to an award of compensation of up to 2 years’ salary.

But did you know that there are 2 other remedies that can be awarded if the employee’s claim succeeds?

Yes, the Workplace Relations Commission adjudicator, in an unfair dismissal hearing, can also order that the employee be reinstated or reengaged. This can be the worst possible outcome for some employers.

It is not a frequent outcome to an unfair dismissal claim and more often than not the employee will only tick the box on the WRC claim form seeking compensation. If this is the case then the adjudicator has no decision to make once he decides the employee has been unfairly dismissed.

But sometimes an employee will seek reinstatement to their old position. He may do this for tactical reasons-for example, it may encourage the employer to attempt to settle the claim before it goes to a hearing at WRC for fear of losing.

On other occasions, however, by virtue of the nature of the industry or specialised nature of the job, the employment prospects for the dismissed employee may be poor. If this is the case the employee may be perfectly happy to resume his old job, or an alternative position in the same organisation, which can be an equally bad result for the employer, who would be happy to never see the employee again.

This can cause a major headache for the employer who will doubtless argue that the relationship between employer and employee has broken down and there is a lack of trust and confidence between the parties and they should not be forced into resuming the old relationship.

This is a widely used and accepted argument. But it’s not always successful.

A Banker v A Bank Adj ADJ-00001266

The WRC adjudicator, on 28th March, 2018, made an order for re-instatement in this case involving a banker versus his former employer, a bank. The banker, a trader, was dismissed for gross misconduct and brought a claim for unfair dismissal.

Without going into all the details (there is a link below for full details of the decision) the decision of the adjudicator, Mr. Kevin Baneham, was that the unfair dismissal claim was to succeed due to the imperfections and flaws in the bank’s disciplinary procedure which led to the dismissal. The next step to be decided was the appropriate redress for the employee.

The redress sought by the banker, once he succeeded in his claim, was re-instatement. The adjudicator agreed that re-instatement and re-engagement were possible awards as the banker was a popular employee whose performance appraisals were good and was a good team player.

Mutual trust and confidence/disharmony

The bank, however, argued that re-instatement was not appropriate as it could lead to a poor relationship between the parties in the future, there would inevitably be disharmony, and the relationship of mutual trust and confidence between the parties was shattered. The adjudicator did not agree.

The adjudicator had regard for the fact that the banker operated in a strictly regulated environment and industry and a dismissal would possibly be fatal to obtaining alternative employment in such an industry, given the relatively limited options. For this reason the adjudicator ordered that the employee be re-instated as it was ‘just and equitable in this case’.

For the reasons provided in this report, I find that the complaint of unfair dismissal is well founded and, pursuant to section 7(1)(a) of the Unfair Dismissals Acts, I order the re-instatement by the respondent of the complainant in the position which he held immediately before his dismissal on the terms and conditions on which he was employed immediately before his dismissal together with a term that the re-instatement shall be deemed to have commenced on the day of the dismissal.

You can read the full decision in this case here: ADJ-00001266

Lessons for employers and employees

If you are an employer ensure you or your advisor checks the WRC complaint form to see if the redress sought by the employee includes re-instatement or re-engagement.

If you are an employee you may consider nominating those options as redress you are seeking as it may put some pressure on your former employer to settle the case before it goes to hearing, for fear you will win and an order for re-instatement is made.

The Mediation Act, 2017-What You Need to Know

mediation act 2017

The Mediation Act, 2017 came into law in Ireland in January, 2018. The purpose of this legislation is to allow parties to a dispute to avoid the costs of litigation and to reduce the number of disputes coming before the Courts.

Mediation is a collaborative process which aims to encourage the parties to a dispute to arrive at their own solution, with the professional assistance of the mediator. The mediator is to facilitate the parties and provide his/her professional expertise and experience but the determination of the dispute is up to the parties themselves.

The mediator can make proposals to resolve the dispute when the parties request this. There may also be a need for experts in a mediation if the issues are complex-for example a financial dispute with taxation implications.

It will have significant implications for solicitors in their daily practice of advising clients, and for clients who wish to institute litigation proceedings.

Before commencing legal proceedings on behalf of a client a solicitor will have to swear a statutory declaration that

  1. He/she has advised the client of the availability of mediation as a way to settle the dispute
  2. Give the client information about the benefits of using mediation, as opposed to instituting legal proceedings
  3. Give the client names and addresses of mediators who may be able to assist in resolving the issues between the parties
  4. Tell the client that mediation is voluntary and may not be appropriate where the safety of the client is at risk or where there is children and their welfare/health/safety is at risk
  5. Advise the client of the need for confidentiality in a mediation and the enforceability of a mediated agreement
  6. Advise the client of the solicitor’s obligation to provide a statutory declaration confirming the provision of the information above to the client

The statutory declaration should accompany whatever document is used to commence legal proceedings. If this does not occur the Court can adjourn proceedings until such time as the solicitor has provided the Court with the statutory declaration.

The Mediation Act, 2017 will not apply to certain proceedings, for example High Court judicial review proceedings and an arbitration under the Arbitration Act, 2010. The full scope of the act is set out in section 3, Mediation Act, 2017.

A court will be allowed to take into account when awarding costs any party’s unreasonable refusal or failure to use mediation.

Part 2 of the Act sets out the provisions re mediation generally including the role of the mediator, codes of practice, and the enforceability of settlement agreements arrived at through mediation.

Part 3 sets out the obligations of solicitors and barristers with respect to mediation and Part 4 sets out the role of the Court.

Section 19, Mediation Act, 2017 is an interesting one as it allows a Court to adjourn court proceedings to facilitate mediation:

9. (1) Where—

(a) parties have entered into an agreement to mediate, and

(b) one or more of the parties referred to in paragraph (a) commences proceedings in respect of the dispute the subject of the agreement to mediate,

a party to the proceedings may, at any time after an appearance has been entered and before delivering any pleadings or taking any other steps in the proceedings, apply to the court to adjourn the proceedings.

(2) On application to it being made under subsection (1), the court shall make an order adjourning such proceedings if it is satisfied that—

(a) there is not sufficient reason why the dispute in respect of which the proceedings have been commenced should not be dealt with in accordance with the agreement to mediate, and

(b) the applicant party was at the time when the proceedings were commenced, and still remains, ready and willing to do all things necessary for the proper implementation of the agreement to mediate.

(3) This section is in addition to and not in substitution for any power of a court to adjourn proceedings before it.

 

Some commentators have advanced the opinion that an employer, with an employment contract containing a clause agreeing to mediation in the even of a dispute, can have Court proceedings adjourned pursuant to section 19. It is too early to say how a Court will view this argument but it is probably advisable for an employer to have such a clause in his contract of employment as he has nothing to lose in doing so.

Section 16 provides for a court inviting the parties to engage in mediation and section 17 provides for the mediator to provide a report to the Court to explain why the parties have not so engaged or to explain why the mediation has failed and they wish to re-enter legal proceedings.

Conclusion

The Mediation Act, 2017 is to be welcomed as it should allow more parties in dispute resolve their issues without the cost of going to full blown legal proceedings including a Court trial.

And if you are an employer it cannot do you any harm to insert a clause in your contract of employment providing for the use of mediation before instituting legal proceedings.

‘Building a Case’-It’s Time to Put the Shovel Down

building a legal case

From time to time I am approached by a potential client who wants to ‘build a case’ against their former employer.

I quickly let the person know I have no interest in ‘building a case’, and advise them against it, too.

Let me tell you why.

If you have a valid legal claim or cause of action the ‘case/claim’ should be able to stand on its own two feet, without any requirement for ‘building’. To win a legal case you will need to do two things:

  1. Prove the facts that support your case
  2. Prove the law that supports your case

If you do not have facts that support a case from the outset all the building in the world will do you no good. You will be scrabbling around in desperation to try to cobble together some mish mash to get one over on your former employer, or the other party if it is not an employment related dispute. You would be far better off recognising that you are aggrieved, perhaps insensibly angry, and want to teach him/her a lesson.

But you run the risk of making an even bigger mess for yourself, and wasting time and money in the process if you embark on a course of ‘building a case’.

Look: when you are in a hole the first thing you need to do is put the goddamned shovel down.

Don’t misunderstand me. If you have a case a decent lawyer will recognise it very quickly.

What you need to do is give him/her the facts and relevant documentation surrounding your employment. Your solicitor will quickly recognise

  1. Whether you have a cause of action
  2. What the likelihood of success is
  3. What the possible remedies are.

When you have this information you will be ready to make a cool, rational decision about proceeding or not.

‘Building a case’

Building a case is not like building a wall or a dog house. When you are building a wall and there are no blocks you can use bricks, or stones. Building a dog house can involve all sorts of alternative materials.

But a legal case or claim must stand on its own facts. You cannot make them up. You cannot have ‘alternative facts’ as the White House spokesperson claimed in relation to Trump’s vainglorious claim that his inauguration crowd was the biggest since the pan was sliced.

Alternative facts are an oxymoron-a contradiction in terms.

Neither can you have alternative law-there has either been a breach of the law, and a consequent breach of your rights, or not.

It doesn’t matter whether it is an employment matter, defamation, property dispute, personal injury, breach of constitutional right, probate dispute, a commercial dispute, or a family law row.

The facts are the facts and the law is the law. Sooner or later your ‘case’ is going to have to face these inescapable facts and you are going to have to discharge the burden of proof to win your case.

As Charles Dickens said in Hard Times,

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

I do not agree with this quotation, not in the slightest. Children should be taught much more than facts. Things like decency, honesty, kindness, generosity, an appreciation for beauty, art, literature, etc.

But when you are considering commencing legal proceedings or bringing an employment related claim you would do well to remember this quotation, for your case will walk slowly at first, and then run; or fall flat on its face.

Spend your time scrambling around in the weeds for stuff to ‘build a case’ and you will almost certainly fall.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in Ireland-a Quick and Easy Guide

sexual harassment

Have you experienced sexual harassment in the workplace?

Maybe this is a problem you have to deal with on a regular basis?

What can you do about it?

Let’s have a look.

Definition of Sexual Harassment

Firstly, let’s be clear what sexual harassment is. Sexual harassment is defined in section 8 Equality Act, 2004 as

14A.—(1) For the purposes of this Act, where—

(a) an employee (in this section referred to as ‘the victim’) is harassed or sexually harassed either at a place where the employee is employed (in this section referred to as ‘the workplace’) or otherwise in the course of his or her employment by a person who is—

(i) employed at that place or by the same employer,

(ii) the victim’s employer, or

(iii) a client, customer or other business contact of the victim’s employer and the circumstances of the harassment are such that the employer ought reasonably to have taken steps to prevent it,

or

(b) without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (a)—

(i) such harassment has occurred, and

(ii) either—

(I) the victim is treated differently in the workplace or otherwise in the course of his or her employment by reason of rejecting or accepting the harassment, or

(II) it could reasonably be anticipated that he or she would be so treated,

the harassment or sexual harassment constitutes discrimination by the victim’s employer in relation to the victim’s conditions of employment.

(2) If harassment or sexual harassment of the victim by a person other than his or her employer would, but for this subsection, be regarded as discrimination by the employer under subsection (1), it is a defence for the employer to prove that the employer took such steps as are reasonably practicable—

(a) in a case where subsection (1)(a) applies (whether or not subsection (1)(b) also applies), to prevent the person from harassing or sexually harassing the victim or any class of persons which includes the victim, and

(b) in a case where subsection (1)(b) applies, to prevent the victim from being treated differently in the workplace or otherwise in the course of the victim’s employment and, if and so far as any such treatment has occurred, to reverse its effects.

(3) A person’s rejection of, or submission to, harassment or sexual harassment may not be used by an employer as a basis for a decision affecting that person.

(4) The reference in subsection (1)(a)(iii) to a client, customer or other business contact of the victim’s employer includes a reference to any other person with whom the employer might reasonably expect the victim to come into contact in the workplace or otherwise in the course of his or her employment.

(5) In this section ‘employee’ includes an individual who is—

(a) seeking or using any service provided by an employment agency, and

(b) participating in any course or facility referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c) of section 12(1),

and accordingly any reference to the individual’s employer includes a reference to the employment agency providing the service or, as the case may be, the person offering or providing the course or facility.

(6) Where subsection (5) applies in relation to a victim, subsection (1) shall have effect as if for ‘in relation to the victim’s conditions of employment’ there were substituted ‘contrary to section 11’ or, as the case may be, section 12.

(7) (a) In this section—

(i) references to harassment are to any form of unwanted conduct related to any of the discriminatory grounds, and

(ii) references to sexual harassment are to any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,

being conduct which in either case has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

(b) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (a), such unwanted conduct may consist of acts, requests, spoken words, gestures or the production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other material.”.

 

There is a number of points you need to take from this definition:

  1. sexual harassment constitutes discrimination by the victim’s employer in relation to the victim’s conditions of employment;
  2. Sexual harassment can be carried out by the employer, a fellow employee, or a client/customer/business contact of the employer;
  3. It is a defence for the employer to show that he took steps that are reasonably practicable to prevent the harassment or reverse its effects;
  4. Sexual harassment is any form of of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, which… has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

So, now that you are clear on what sexual harassment is and how it can occur, let’s take a look at some other vital legislation: the Employment Equality Act, 1998 (revised and updated to March, 2016).

Vicarious Liability of Employers

Section 15 Employment Equality Act, 1998 provides that the employer is vicariously liable for the actions of his employees, whether he was aware or not:

Liability of employers and principals.

15.— (1) Anything done by a person in the course of his or her employment shall, in any proceedings brought under this Act, be treated for the purposes of this Act as done also by that person’s employer, whether or not it was done with the employer’s knowledge or approval.

(2) Anything done by a person as agent for another person, with the authority (whether express or implied and whether precedent or subsequent) of that other person shall, in any proceedings brought under this Act, be treated for the purposes of this Act as done also by that other person.

(3) In proceedings brought under this Act against an employer in respect of an act alleged to have been done by an employee of the employer, it shall be a defence for the employer to prove that the employer took such steps as were reasonably practicable to prevent the employee—

( a) from doing that act, or

( b) from doing in the course of his or her employment acts of that description.

Burden of Proof

Section 85 A Employment Equality Act, 1998 sets out the burden of proof in employment discrimination cases:

85A. — (1) Where in any proceedings facts are established by or on behalf of a complainant from which it may be presumed that there has been discrimination in relation to him or her, it is for the respondent to prove the contrary.

 

You will see that once the victim can establish facts from which discrimination can be presumed the burden of proof shifts to the respondent/employer/harasser.

Redress

If you want to seek redress for sexual harassment you can submit a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission or the Circuit Court. The maximum award from the WRC is 2 years’ remuneration and the maximum from the Circuit Court is the maximum of its jurisdiction, which in 2018 is €75,000.

If the employee has suffered a psychological or psychiatric injury as a result of the harassment he/she may bring a personal injury claim against the employer, and as part of this negligence claim he/she would be also pleading breach of contract, breach of statutory duty, failure to provide a safe place of work in breach of health and safety obligations, etc.

The claim must be brought to the WRC within 6 months of sexual harassment incident, and, if the harassment has been continuous over a period of time, within 6 months of the last incident. This 6 months time limit can be extended to 12 months if reasonable cause for the delay can be shown.

The claim for a personal injury can be brought to the Injuries Board and then through the Civil Courts within 2 years of the injury.