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Employer’s Response to Sexual Harassment Complaint Insufficient Despite Complainant’s Request to Deal with It “Quietly”

In the case of Nadine Harty v Causeway Hospitality Ltd Greenway Manor Hotel ADJ-00036502 the Complainant alleged that she was discriminated against on grounds of gender and that she was subjected to sexual harassment and harassment in the workplace. She claimed that despite numerous complaints, no action was taken by the Respondent.

Facts: The Complainant was employed as a “Prep Chef” from 29th June 2021 to 1st February 2022 when she resigned from her employment. She claimed that she was harassed by the Executive Chef, Mr. M, and complained of the following conduct: inappropriate and unwarranted touching, grabbing her wrists, stroking her arm, grabbing her around the waist, and on one occasion biting her on her shoulder, whispering in her ear, blowing on her neck, and making totally inappropriate comments about underage girls. The Complainant suffered  distress as a result of these incidents and what she claimed was a lack of action on the part of the Respondent, causing her to resign and take up alternative employment.

The Complainant made a number of written complaints about Mr M’s behaviour to HR, but she claimed that she did not receive a response and no action was taken. She was later informed by the Head Chef, Mr B, that Mr M was “gone”. The Complainant was very upset by the Respondent’s approach and by the fact that her complaints had not been addressed, and resigned from her employment.

It was argued on behalf of the Respondent that if there was a finding that the Complainant was discriminated against or harassed, it was not responsible for it. The Respondent sought to rely on the defence that, under section 14A(2) of the Act, they had taken such steps as were reasonably practicable to prevent the harassment from occurring, and to address the Complainant’s complaints.

It was submitted on behalf of the Respondent that, following receipt of the initial complaint from the Complainant, an informal meeting was held with the Complainant’s line manager. The Respondent’s position was that its approach was due to the fact that the Complainant had requested that the matter be dealt with “quietly”. It was decided that the situation would be monitored and kept under review.

Subsequently, Mr J, a director of the Respondent, met with Mr. M and outlined the complaint. Mr M was asked to stay away from the Complainant. Further complaints were received from the Complainant and, following another meeting between Mr J and Mr M, Mr M left the Respondent’s employment.

Decision: The Adjudicator, Ms. Gaye Cunningham, was satisfied that the Complainant’s evidence was credible and that all of the incidents of harassment and sexual harassment alleged had occurred, and were serious in nature regarding the impact and the effect on the Complainant. She found that the Complainant had established a prima facie case of harassment and sexual harassment.

“The evidence of the Complainant clearly showed that the inappropriate touching and physical contact and comments of a sexually explicit and suggestive nature visited upon her by Mr M had the effect of violating her dignity and creating an intimidating and degrading environment for her. The Respondent was not in a position to dispute the actual occurrences of the alleged incidents of harassment and sexual harassment as it did not carry out a full and complete investigation.”

The Adjudicator was not satisfied that the Respondent had put appropriate measures in place to stop the harassment and sexual harassment from taking place or to reverse its effects. She noted that the Respondent had policies in place and provided training in relation to dignity at work. However, she pointed out that the Respondent failed to carry out a formal investigation following receipt of a formal complaint from the Complainant. The Adjudicator was particularly surprised that no one appeared to have consulted with the Complainant notwithstanding the seriousness of her complaints and the nature of them.

The Adjudicator found that the Complainant was harassed and sexually harassed in the workplace and that the Respondent did not put in place appropriate measures to stop it or to reverse its effects. She found that the harassment and sexual harassment amounted to discrimination against the Complainant on the grounds of gender and that it was reasonable for the Complainant to resign from her employment. The Complainant was awarded €20,000 for the distress she suffered and the effects of the harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination on her.

Takeaway for Employers: This case demonstrates what is required of employers seeking to rely on the defence under s.14A(2)that reasonably practicable steps were taken to prevent the harassment or reverse its effects. It was not sufficient that the Respondent had relevant policies in place and provided training to its employees. The Adjudicator was critical of the Respondent’s failure to commence a formal investigation upon receiving a formal complaint from the Complainant notwithstanding  the fact that the Complainant had requested the issue to be dealt with “quietly”. The Adjudicator remarked that she was particularly “struck” by the  fact that the Complainant was not consulted in the process that was initiated, especially given the harassment and sexual harassment complained of.

Link  – https://www.workplacerelations.ie/en/cases/2023/march/adj-00036502.html

Authors – Anne O’Connell, Jenny Wakely and Hannah Smullen

28 April 2023

Anne O’Connell Solicitors

19-22 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2


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