John Halligan ‘regrets’ asking job applicant ‘if she was married’ in interview

Government department is ordered to pay €7,500 to female official for discrimination

John Halligan, an Independent TD for Waterford, is Minister of State for Training and Skills.

John Halligan, an Independent TD for Waterford, is Minister of State for Training and Skills.

 

Minister of State John Halligan has said he “regrets” asking a female official if she was married during a job interview.

The woman was awarded €7,500 by the Workplace Relations Commission, which found she had been discriminated against by the Waterford Independent TD’s comments.

Mr Halligan, who is Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research, said he asked the question to encourage a family-friendly workplace and “did not realise that it was unacceptable”.

“I run a family friendly environment in my workplace,” he told The Irish Times. “What else would you be asking for?

The executive officer - who had been employed by the Civil Service since 1993 - had interviewed unsuccessfully in May 2016 for one of two posts of Private Secretary to two Ministers of State in the same Government department, the WRC heard.

The WRC hearing into the unidentified official’s claim of discrimination under the Employment Equality Acts heard Mr Halligan said to her at the interview: “I shouldn’t be asking you this, but.... are you a married woman? Do you have children? How old are your children?”

The woman answered the questions, confirming that she was married and she was the mother of two children and she indicated their ages.

In reply, the Minister observed “you must be very busy”.

In her ruling , which found the woman was discriminated against, WRC Adjudication Officer Penelope McGrath found the comments to be “outmoded”.

She said: “It was ill-advised of the Minister of State to have so pointedly obtained information that had nothing to do with this candidate’s suitability for a position, and a position for which she had determined she was eligible to compete.”

Ms McGrath also found the interview process was “tainted” by the fact that these questions were raised and allowed to be raised. “The same or even similar questions were not asked of the other two candidates.”

However, she said she did not find the women “was not ultimately selected by reason of the questions asked and answered”.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Halligan said he encourages flexible hours to allow his staff take care of their families.

This includes starting at 10am and finishing in time to collect their children, said the Minister, who is in Thailand promoting educational opportunities in Ireland. “I am not an interviewer,” he said, adding that he knew certain topics such as “religion or sex or politics” are usually off limits in an interview.

In a further statement released through a Government spokeswoman, the Minister said: “Operating a family-friendly environment has always been a key ethos of mine as an employer. I allow all of my employees the flexibility of starting late to enable them to bring their children to school or carry out any non-work commitments they may have.

“During the course of this interview for the role of Private Secretary - shortly after I became Minister of State - I asked the candidate if she had children and their ages.

“I did this as I wanted her to feel that I would be flexible in terms of any family business that she may have to attend to. Too many workplaces have less than family-friendly arrangements and I always ensure that my workplace is as family-friendly as possible.

“This was the first time I was conducting an interview of this sort and I did not realise that it was unacceptable to ask such a question. But the question was coming from a good place. It was in no way meant to be discriminatory in any shape.

“I was simply trying to put the interviewee at ease. I wanted to assure her that I am as flexible as possible with members of my team with any external or non-work commitments they may have.

“As a true advocate for equality for all, I regret that this incident occurred. The reasons behind my actions that day was to try and be as accommodating as possible to people who have children.”

In a letter to her HR manager two days after the interview, the female official said it was unfair to be in the position of having to explain how her family circumstances would not affect her performance on the one hand, and on the other hand had to worry about the fact that the lack of explanation would have been interpreted negatively against her.“Did I miss something in the office notice which said that women with children need not apply because that is the message which I received?” she wrote.

In a statement, the Public Service Executive Union, of which the woman is a member, said “it beggars belief that 40 years after the enactment of the first Employment Equality Act 1977 anybody, let alone a Government Minister, would think that it is acceptable to ask questions based on an out-moded view of the role of a mother.”

The union described Mr Halligan’s comments, coming from someone “who is a Minister in the Department that was, at the time, the department charged with the promotion and implementation of equality legislation is, frankly, shameful”.

It added: “We hope that that the publicity around this case makes it clear that it is never ok to ask discriminatory questions or to make discriminatory assumptions regarding candidates simply because of their family circumstances.

“It took courage for the member concerned to take on her department and a Government Minister. Both her employer and the Minister let her, and themselves, down badly, breached the very laws that they are required to uphold and treated a member of staff in a disgraceful fashion.

“In consultation with the member concerned, we are considering next steps.”