An employee of a disability service was accused of sexually harassing multiple colleagues before being sacked for gross misconduct in 2020, the Workplace Relations Commission has been told.
Care worker Shannon Holland was one of two colleagues who lodged a formal grievance over the man’s behaviour in December 2019, a hearing was told today.
Ms Holland has now brought complaints of constructive dismissal and sexual harassment against her former employer, Ability West CLG of Blackrock House, Dún Na Carraige, Galway, both of which are denied.
Ability West, which provides residential care, education and assisted living to people with intellectual disabilities, argued it had taken reasonably practical steps in response to the complaints and “discharged its responsibility to prevent harassment” by placing the person accused of it on administrative leave before sacking him.
Ms Holland maintained the investigation into her grievance was not conducted promptly – as it took over six months -- and that she was left working directly with the senior staff member’s partner while awaiting the results, which she said she was not allowed to read.
Ability West had sought to have the media excluded from today’s adjudication hearing in an application resisted by the complainant’s legal team.
“I’ve taken instruction,” said the complainant’s barrister Anne-Marie Giblin. “We wish for the hearing to take place in public. Ms Holland would prefer a light is shone on this.”
Aisling McDevitt, for Ability West CLG, argued reporting might tend to identify two other claimants whose cases were proceeding separately, and prejudice the one already under WRC adjudication.
“This is the administration of justice, it’s not to take place in private. The complainant is quite within her rights to want it heard in public,” Ms Giblin said.
Adjudicating officer Anne McElduff said she did not propose to anonymise the parties to the adjudication proceedings in her written decision, and allowed the matter to proceed in public.
Ms Holland gave evidence that the senior employee was in a relationship with another member of staff under his supervision.
Ms McDevitt, for Ability West, said the organisation was not aware of such an allegation until the complainant made a submission to the WRC in March this year.
Ms Holland gave evidence that on May 19, 2019, after asking him to give her a day off after seven days’ work in a row concluding in two 12-hour shifts the senior employee replied: “You owe me.”
“I thought after seven full days of work and two separate 12-hour shifts I wouldn’t be in a position to owe him anything,” Ms Holland said.
Asked by Ms Giblin whether this was “jokey in tone”, Ms Holland said the manager was “generally informal” and could be “crude”.
“I know other staff left because it made them feel uncomfortable. I really wanted to become the senior instructor because I really cared about the centre and wanted it to get back on track,” she said.
In a text on May 21, 2019, the man asked her if she wanted “toe-curling orgasmic sex” and stated: “you owe me BJ”.
She said she had never addressed this colleague in such terms before and she felt “really uncomfortable”.
“I was really afraid about work the next day. I felt I had to reply because I’d see him at work. I didn’t sleep at all that night,” she said.
She wrote back: “wrong person”, and the colleague replied: “yes sorry”.
“I just wanted to pretend it didn’t happen,” the complainant said.
In August that year she used the “raised hands” emoji and the “clapping hands” emoji in the course of a text exchange with the senior employee.
“Is that a clapping sound or a hand job,” the senior employee wrote back.
“They’re praising or happy emojis – there was nothing sexual on my side,” she said in evidence.
She also gave evidence that the senior colleague had placed his hands on her hips at work in a manner which made her feel uncomfortable on one occasion.
The complainant sent an email to lodge a grievance with her employer on December 15, 2019, which was received by Ability West the following day, when a second employee made a similar complaint, the hearing was told.
Ms McDevitt said that after the complainant lodged her grievance the matter was investigated fully by an independent HR consultant, who upheld the sexual harassment claim on the balance of probabilities and also found the senior employee had turned up to work drunk.
The senior employee was ultimately dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct in June 2020, the commission was told.
The complainant told today’s hearing she had to continue to work with the man’s partner for months afterwards.
Ability West denied any awareness that the colleague in question was in a relationship with the senior employee – with Ms McDevitt stating the investigation report only noted they had a “strong working relationship”.
Ms Holland, in her evidence, said she was shown the comments made by this colleague to the external investigator as part of the process.
The female colleague had told the investigator the complainant “wanted it” and had said she “liked older men” but felt “rebuffed” by the senior employee, she said.
After the dismissal of the senior employee, the hearing was told, a group counselling session was arranged at the centre where the complainant worked.
“[The company psychologist] kind of just wanted to see if we wanted to talk. I don’t know if she knew who was involved,” the complainant said. “She specifically called me out and said I was ‘very quiet’. I wasn’t confident talking about what happened, especially in front of his partner,” she added.
The complainant said she became very anxious at work over the following months and expressed her discomfort to her line manager – who she said was a friend of the senior employee who was sacked.
She resigned in February 2021, she said, because after being off for Christmas she could “see how it was really affecting me”, she said.
Ms McDevitt contended that the complainant was familiar with the organisation’s dignity at work policy and grievance procedure.
She put it to her in cross-examination that she never made a second formal complaint or put her client on notice of any further grievance after the conclusion of the first process in June 2020.
“I told my line manager how I felt and if my line manager took on their duties they would have gone further with it as their duty is to mind the staff,” the complainant said.
The case will resume at the next available date with the evidence of the organisation’s HR director and the line manager.