Discriminatory Dismissal Leads to €46,000 Compensation Award

workplace discrimination ireland

Could you afford an employment law award of €46,000 against you? Let’s face it you would be hard pressed to just take it on the chin and chalk it down to experience.

But that is what you could be facing if you are at the losing end of a WRC decision as occurred recently in a case involving a claim founded on discrimination.

An office manager in a software firm was awarded €46,000 in compensation by the WRC for her discriminatory dismissal.

The employee who brought the claim had an incurable degenerative disease (fibromyalgia) and was dismissed whilst on sick leave. This disease caused her muscle pain, fatigue, sleep and memory problems.

The €46,000 award comprised 2 parts:

  1. €23,000 in respect of the actual discriminatory dismissal and
  2. €23,000 for the failure of the employer to make reasonable accommodation in allowing the employee to continue in her job.

The award took into account the way the employer dismissed the employee: by telephone.

Background

The background to the case is the employee was employed since 2015 and went on certified sick leave in May 2017; in November 2017 she was dismissed by conference call. Whilst she was out sick her occupational therapist made a number of recommendations as to how she could be accommodated in the workplace including:

  • Working from home
  • More rest breaks
  • Flexible working rosters
  • A temporary reduction in working hours.

The employee was then involved in a car accident in August 2017 and she was not expected to return to work until January 2018 as she required a spinal implant procedure.

However, in November 2017 she was told by phone that she was being given one month’s notice of dismissal but would be paid in lieu of notice and her termination was, therefore, with immediate effect. The employer mentioned incapacity and “the problems her absenteeism were causing.”

In her evidence at the WRC the employee told that she was not given any warning of her potential termination nor was she given the chance to appeal the decision. The employee was on certified sick leave at the time and was taken aback at the decision which had a significant impact on her from a personal and financial perspective.

She also spoke of the pride she took in being able to work despite her difficulties and she was anxious to show that sufferers from such diseases/disabilities can do things and take part in the workplace.

The employer denied it failed to offer reasonable accommodation and stated it could not hold her position open indefinitely.

Warning for employers

This case is further evidence, if any were needed, that employers need to be very careful about how they deal with their employees, especially when it comes to terminating employment on the grounds of incapacity.

Employers are perfectly entitled to terminate an employee’s job on the grounds of incapacity but only after looking carefully at the options, obtaining updated medical evidence, warning the employee his/her job is at risk of termination, and giving them the opportunity to appeal the decision.

Otherwise, the employer runs the risk of a discrimination-based claim either on the grounds of discriminatory dismissal or straightforward discrimination or failure to make reasonable accommodation for the employee’s continued employment.

Unfair Dismissal and Discriminatory Dismissal Are Parallel Claims-You Must Choose One or the Other

discriminatory dismissal

Did you know that you cannot bring a claim for unfair dismissal and discriminatory dismissal at the same time?

They are considered to be parallel complaints and you will have to choose one or the other.

Let me clarify: section 77 of the Employment Equality Act, 1988 states

77.— F117 [ (1) A person who claims —

( a ) to have been discriminated against or subjected to victimisation,

( b ) to have been dismissed in circumstances amounting to discrimination or victimisation,

( c ) not to be receiving remuneration in accordance with an equal remuneration term, or

( d ) not to be receiving a benefit under an equality clause,

in contravention of this Act may, subject to subsections (3) to (9) , seek redress by referring the case to the F118 [ Director General of the Workplace Relations Commission ] . ]

Thus, you are claiming that you have been dismissed in circumstances amounting to discrimination or victimisation.

You can also bring a claim under the Unfair Dismissals act, 1977 but you will have to choose which of these claims you will ultimately pursue.

Why? Because Section 101(4)(a) of the Employment Equality act, 1998 states:

(4A) (a) Where an employee refers —

(i) a case or claim under section 77 , and

(ii) a claim for redress under the Act of 1977,

to the Director General of the Workplace Relations Commission in respect of a dismissal, then, from the relevant date, the case or claim referred to in subparagraph (i) shall, in so far only as it relates to such dismissal, be deemed to have been withdrawn unless, before the relevant date, the employee withdraws the claim under the Act of 1977.

(b) In this subsection —

‘ Act of 1977 ’ means the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 ;

‘ dismissal ’ has the same meaning as it has in the Act of 1977;

‘ relevant date ’ means such date as may be prescribed by, or determined in accordance with, regulations made by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. ]

This means that the discrimination based claim under the Employment Equality act, 1988 will be deemed to be withdrawn unless, 41 days after notification from the WRC, you withdraw the claim under the Unfair Dismissals act, 1977.

Then, if you withdraw the claim under the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977 your discrimination based claim under the Equality Act 1988 will go ahead.

If you don’t respond to the letter you receive from the WRC your claim under the Equality Act, 1988 will be deemed to be withdrawn and your unfair dismissal claim will be dealt with.

Section 101A of the Employment Equality Act, 1998 also prohibits parallel claims as follows:

101A. — Where the conduct of an employer constitutes both a contravention of Part III or IV and a contravention of either the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 or the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Act 2003 , relief may not be granted to the employee concerned in respect of the conduct under both this Act and either of the said Acts.

Takeaway

If you bring claims to the Workplace Relations Commission sometimes your case will be straightforward, but sometimes you can easily fall into a technical or legal roadblock that may give you a nasty surprise.

You should always seek legal advice before you bring any claim as it is vital that you choose the correct cause of action. This cannot be remedied later on and I have seen some very silly, basic mistakes made by workers who ultimately make some simple but fatal mistakes and end up with nothing but heartache and disappointment.

What is The Employer’s Defence in a Discrimination Case?

 

workplace discrimination ireland

If you are an employer faced with a discrimination based claim pursuant to the Employment Equality Acts there is a defence provided for in the legislation itself.

However, before looking at this defence let’s take a look at the position in relation to the burden of proof in relation to claims of discrimination in the workplace.

Section 85A of the Employment Equality act 1988 states:

Burden of proof.

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.

(2) This section is without prejudice to any other enactment or rule of law in relation to the burden of proof in any proceedings which may be more favourable to a complainant.

(3) Where, in any proceedings arising from a reference of a matter by the Authority to the F153 [ Director General of the Workplace Relations Commission ] under section 85(1) , facts are established by or on behalf of the Authority from which it may be presumed that an action or a failure mentioned in a paragraph of that provision has occurred, it is for the respondent to prove the contrary.

(4) In this section ‘ discrimination ’ includes —

( a ) indirect discrimination,

( b ) victimisation,

( c ) harassment or sexual harassment,

( d ) the inclusion in a collective agreement to which section 9 applies of a provision which, by virtue of that section, is null and void.

(5) The European Communities (Burden of Proof in Gender Discrimination Cases) Regulations 2001 ( S.I. No. 337 of 2001 ), in so far as they relate to proceedings under this Act, are revoked. ]

This means the burden of proof is on the employee in the first instance to establish facts from which it can be presumed that there has been discrimination in relation to him/her. If he/she can do this then the burden of proof shifts from the employee to the employer to prove that discrimination did not occur.

The employer’s defence is set out in section 14A dealing with harassment and sexual harassment.

14A states:

Harassment and sexual harassment.

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. ]

This section means that harassment is defined as any form of unwanted conduct related to any of the discriminatory grounds and sexual harassment is any form of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.

The employer’s defence is set out in 14A (2) above for it states:

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.

What does this mean?

The first part of this defence is that the employer took steps to prevent harassment occurring in the first place. This has been held by the Labour Court to mean, at a minimum, the existence of policies/procedures in the workplace to prevent and deal with harassment. The most popular way for employers to ensure the necessary policy is to have a staff handbook or dignity at work policy communicated and available to all staff.

The second part of this defence is, where harassment has occurred, to take action to reverse the effect of the harassment that has occurred. This would involve a look at the actions that the employer took once it was aware of the complaint of harassment and how quickly it took steps to deal with it.

A substantial part of this response would be an investigation of the complaint(s) and the practical steps and any measures taken to deal with the employee’s complaint.

Takeaway for employers

There is two parts to the defence open to you in a discrimination/harassment type claim:

  1. What did you do beforehand to try to ensure no discrimination occurs in the workplace-for example, had you a dignity at work/anti bullying/anti harassment policy and procedure communicated to all employees
  2. ONce an allegation or complaint of harassment is made have you taken all reasonably practical steps to deal with the complaint and to reverse the effect of any harassment which has occurred.

Manager Exploits Staff for Sex and Wins Case for Unfair Dismissal

sexual harassment

Did you ever read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens?

Dickens introduced a great number of unforgettable characters to the world in this novel about the exploitation of orphan children by ‘the Jew’, Fagin to engage in criminality and picking pockets on the streets of London in the 1830s.

In Oliver Twist you had Oliver Twist himself (“please sir, can I have some more?”), John (aka Jack) Dawkins (‘the Artful Dodger’), Nancy, the good hearted lover/prostitute of the evil Bill Sikes, and a lad called Charlie Bates.

Charlie Bates spent a lot of his time on the floor laughing uproariously at the antics of the gang and exclaiming “What a game!” in reference to the criminality and picking of pockets in which the orphaned children were forced to engage.

I thought of Charlie Bates and his stock phrase “what a game!” when I read of a recent decision of the WRC in a case involving a male manager of a store in a restaurant chain who admitted to sexually harassing female staff under his management.

To cut to the chase he offered accomodation to female staff in return for sex.

The employer, on discovering this and after engaging the services of a HR person to carry out an investigation, summarily dismissed him for gross misconduct on the grounds of repeated sexual harassment in the workplace.

The dismissed manager brought a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) for unfair dismissal.

And guess what?

He won on the grounds of the absence of fair procedures (“procedures hopelessly flawed”), the WRC Adjudicator having found that his conduct amounted to sexual harassment and the dismissal was substantially fair.

He was awarded €6,500.

As Charlie Bates might have said, “What a game!”

Lack of fair procedures

The grounds for finding that the procedures were “hopelessly flawed” included

  • The company ignored the employee’s direct evidence and relied on hearsay evidence
  • The employer failed to provide witness statements to the manager
  • The employer failed to advise him of the seriousness of the situation and the potential for dismissal
  • The employer failed to allow the manager defend himself or have representation
  • The employer failed to allow him to cross examine his accusers or challenge witness statements
  • The employer did not give him the specifics of the sexual harassment allegations against him.

However, it is reported that the company engaged the services of an external HR advisor to carry out an investigation and the manager “confirmed to the investigator that he offered accommodation to employees in order to have sex with them”.

Moreover, the manager had been involved in a relationship with one of the employees (who broke it off when she discovered he was married) and the report found he “was accused of unwelcome advances and offers of going to the cinema, restaurants or visits to the park. There were accusations of non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature including leering and making sexually suggestive gestures”.

Lessons to be learned

It’s difficult to understand, having read the facts and report of this case, what circumstances will give rise to a safe summary dismissal from an employer’s perspective. Therefore the safest bet appears to be to always afford fair procedures and natural justice no matter what the circumstances.

At the very least ensure the allegations are put to the employee in sufficient details and he has a chance to explain his version of events and side of the story.

This way might ensure you are not indulging in a Charlie Bates’ reaction of rolling around on the floor saying “What a game!” after reading about, or being involved in, an unfair dismissal.

You can read the full case here.

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.