A chef who was let go after two days’ work when his boss became aware he was a settled Traveller has been awarded over €4,000 in compensation for unlawful workplace discrimination.
David McDonagh’s complaint under the Employment Equality Act against Harmony Catering Services Ltd was upheld by the Workplace Relations Commission in a decision published this morning (Thurs 21/7).
The employer denied any discrimination and insisted Mr McDonagh didn’t have the “skill” for the job.
But the WRC rejected that argument and found the company had never suggested there was any issue with his work, noting that he had completed a trial shift to the satisfaction of its head chef before being let go.
Mr McDonagh said he had worked as a chef at a busy hotel kitchen while doing a a course in culinary arts at Drogheda Institute of Further Education. After completing his training went on to work for five months as a commis chef before applying for a job with the respondent.
He said he was interviewed and started work with a “trial shift” on 31 January 2020, after which the head chef told him he was “happy with [his] performance”.
The head chef then told him he would speak with the company’s managing director to confirm Mr McDonagh’s ongoing employment.
On his second day at work, 4 February 2020, the complainant said he had a conversation with the managing director.
During their conversation, it was confirmed that they had met after a social event a number of years previously and that the managing director had given him a lift home.
He said his next shift was cancelled due to bad weather, and that he was told the company would contact him the next time he was needed in.
The complainant said the next thing he heard was a message from the head chef on 10 February.
The head chef said he had spoken with the managing director and that although they “liked his personality” they believed he didn’t have the skills for the job.
Mr McDonagh said this came as a shock to him, as he thought he had passed his trial shift.
The head chef at the company gave evidence that Mr McDonagh’s first trial shift was satisfactory but also that it had been “atypically quiet” and that he “did not have a chance to observe [him] during a busy time”.
The witness said the next shift on February 4th was “more typically busy” and that Mr McDonagh “did not perform to a satisfactory standard on this date”.
The company’s managing director said in his evidence that he spoke to Mr McDonagh in a “friendly manner” towards the end of the shift on 4 February 2020.
The MD said the “natural course” of the conversation took them to “where the person is from and whether they had a prior social acquaintance”.
He accepted that he identified Mr McDonagh from his prior acquaintance with him and that he had dropped him home that time.
He denied being aware the chef was a member of the Travelling Community at first, but later admitted under cross-examination that he knew Mr McDonagh was a “settled Traveller”.
He denied the dismissal of Mr McDonagh was in any way discriminatory – insisting that he took his lead from the head chef after their meeting on 9 February 2020, when they agreed the complainant did not have the skills for the job.
Darach MacNamara BL, who appeared for the complainant instructed by Dillon Geraghty & Co Solicitors, argued the company “clearly had no difficulty” with his client’s level of experience as he had been successful at interview, and that there had been “no issue” taken with Mr McDonagh’s performance at any stage of his employment.
“Difficulties only arose when the managing director recognised the complainant as a member of the Travelling Community, after which he was dismissed. The conversation with the managing director of 4 February clearly identified him as such an individual” Mr MacNamara said.
Niall Quinn BL appeared for the company on the instructions of O’Hanrahan & Co Solicitors.
He said it was typical in the catering industry for new workers to start on a trial basis and that his client had given “clear evidence” that the complainant did not complete the trial.
He argued the allegation of discrimination was “mere speculation”.
In his decision, adjudicating officer Brian Dolan wrote that the managing director accepted he had become aware that Mr McDonagh was a member of the Travelling Community, despite initially stating that he was not aware.
He noted that the definition of the Travelling Community in the Employment Equality Act extends to those “not currently involved in a nomadic way of life”.
The adjudicator added that the “alleged incompetence” used by the company as the basis for the dismissal was not a matter Mr McDonagh had the opportunity to “contest or dispute”.
He found in favour of Mr McDonagh when he said the trial period was for just one day, as a text from the head chef following the first shift was “silent as to an ongoing trial”.
Noting a conflict with the chef’s evidence that the complainant was still on trial until he was told otherwise, Mr Dolan wrote that the next thing Mr McDonagh was told was that he was to attend another shift. He found that the trial period had been for a day, and that Mr McDonagh had passed it.
He found that Mr McDonagh had raised a prima facie case of discrimination which the company had failed to rebut.
Mr Dolan awarded the complainant €4,160 in compensation, a sum equivalent to six months’ pay at the minimum wage offered to Mr McDonagh at the time – a quarter of the maximum award permitted by the legislation.