The publishing group behind the parenting website EveryMum and cookery magazine EasyFood has been ordered to pay a sales executive €32,500 for maternity-related discrimination.
Zahra Publishing Ltd was found to have breached the Employment Equality Act 1998 by dismissing Sandra Varian four months after she told the company’s CEO she was pregnant.
The publisher had denied discrimination, arguing it terminated Ms Varian’s contract at the end of her probationary period because she claimed she was failing to meet sales targets.
However, the Workplace Relations Commission heard evidence from a former colleague of the complainant, who said she had “less sales” than Ms Varian – but had her probation extended.
Ms Varian gave evidence that she was poached to join the respondent.
On 8 May 2021, the complainant said she rang the CEO and advised she had been undergoing IVF treatment and asked him about maternity leave pay.
Ms Varian said she wanted her employer to know she may be taking maternity leave at any time.
However, the respondent disputed that the complainant rang the CEO and said it could not have happened as she did not have his number. The company maintained Ms Varian never made it aware of her IVF treatment.
Having started with the firm on July 1, 2021 as group sales director, she advised the company on August 5 that year that she was 12 weeks’ pregnant.
“He seemed a little surprised,” Ms Varian said of the CEO.
The company’s position was that the CEO was “genuinely happy for her”.
Ciaran Doherty BL, appearing for the company instructed by Nicola Dowling of Williams Solicitors LLP, said the company was “concerned by the complainant’s failure to generate new business”.
The firm’s commercial director met with Ms Varian on September 21 and discussed issues including the quality of presentations.
Formal and informal meetings between Ms Varian and the firm’s commercial director followed in October and November, the tribunal was told.
Mr Doherty said Ms Varian’s target for the second half of 2021 was €250,000 in new and repeat business, a target cut first to €225,000 and again to €100,000 to be achieved by December 13.
He said the CEO “contacted the company’s solicitor seeking legal advice in relation to the complainant’s poor performance” on November 5, 2021.
Ms Varian said the commercial director told her on November 16 that she was “coming under pressure about her figures”.
She said when she asked to meet with the CEO, he “seemed very dismissive”.
Ms Varian said she asked her boss whether it was “goodbye” if she failed to meet the target of €100,000 in sales by December 13.
He replied that it was “looking that way”, she said.
The respondent’s position was that at a meeting on November 28, 2021, Ms Varian accepted she had “failed to meet the reduced target of €100,000” and said the job “was not what she thought it would be”, Mr Doherty said.
He said the firm’s position was that Ms Varian was being terminated on the grounds of ‘poor performance’
The firm informed the complainant by email on December 13 that her probationary period would not be extended and her employment was being terminated, Mr Doherty added.
He said the firm’s position was that Ms Varian was being terminated on the grounds of “poor performance”.
Ms Varian’s solicitor, Natasha Hand of Richard Grogan & Associates, said the employer “saw her pregnancy as an issue and would have extended her probationary period if she had not been pregnant”.
In his decision, published by the WRC this morning, adjudicating officer Hugh Lonsdale quoted case law stating that the burden of proof in a maternity protection case fell on an employer to show that any adverse treatment was “in no sense related to her pregnancy”.
He said the evidence was that Ms Varian had notified the CEO of the company that she was pregnant on August 5, 2021, and that a first “performance issue” was raised on September 21 that year.
He noted the evidence of the other former sales executive, who had stated that her probationary period had been extended despite having cleared a lesser volume of sales.
“It is my conclusion that the complainant would have had her probationary period extended if she had not been going on maternity leave; this would have been an opportunity to convert some of the business in the pipeline and develop new business in the new year,” Mr Lonsdale wrote.
Upholding the discrimination claim on the grounds of gender, he ordered the company to pay Ms Varian €32,500 in compensation, a sum he wrote was equivalent to six months’ salary.