John Halligan’s interview questions not a ‘sacking offence’

Minister of State said to be considering paying the €7,500 WRC award himself

Minister of State John Halligan asked a female official if she was married during a job interview. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister of State John Halligan asked a female official if she was married during a job interview. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Minister of State John Halligan should admit that questioning a woman about her marital and family status during a job interview was wrong but his actions were not a “sacking offence”, Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell has said.

The Independent Alliance TD has been criticised after the woman was awarded €7,500 by the Workplace Relations Commission, which found she had been discriminated against by the Waterford deputy.

Ms O’Connell said she had been “spitting fire” over the matter but she did not think there was any malice in Mr Halligan’s comments.

He has said that he “regrets” his actions and asked the questions to encourage a family-friendly workplace and “did not realise that it was unacceptable”.

Ms O’Connell said she did not know if it was a case of ignorance or stupidity.

“This is a clear case where someone should say ‘hands up’ I got it wrong, drop the PR, say sorry and learn from it,” she told Newstalk Breakfast. “The question should never have come up. He should just unreservedly apologise to the woman in question and to the wider public too.”

When asked if Mr Halligan should resign, she replied: “No, he shouldn’t go. It’s not a sacking offence, it was a hands up offence.”

The WRC hearing into the woman’s claim heard Mr Halligan had said to the woman: “I shouldn’t be asking you this, but.... are you a married woman? Do you have children? How old are your children?”

‘Very busy’

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”.

The Independent Alliance is meeting in Government Buildings this Thursday morning as it seeks to move on from the events of this week.

It is also understood that Mr Halligan is considering either paying the €7,500 Workplace Relations Commission award himself, or reimbursing the State for its cost.

Green Party TD Catherine Martin, who is chair of the women’s caucus in Dáil Eireann, described Mr Halligan’s questions as “grossly inappropriate and insensitive”.

“Would he have asked a man the same question to put him at ease?” she said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Ms Martin called on Mr Halligan to acknowledge that his questions were deeply inappropriate. “We need to hear that.” If he refused to do so then his position would be untenable, she said.

It was “inexcusable” for Minister of State John Halligan to ask a female official if she was married during a job interview, says the union official who represented the civil servant.

Tom Geraghty, of the Public Service Executive Union, said Mr Halligan’s question was “absolutely shocking” as he was a Government Minister from a department responsible for the legislation in question.

‘Draw conclusions’

Mr Geraghty, who represented the civil servant in her action, said people were not allowed to ask questions about gender or family status because they “might draw conclusions”.

“It doesn’t matter if you have children, it’s not relevant to if you can or cannot do the job,” he told Newstalk.

He said the two other candidates were not asked the same question which put the woman at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, an employment law expert called for better training for people sitting on interview boards in the wake of Halligan’s questions.

Regan O’Driscoll told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the best outcome of the case would be for people to be better trained.

“Anyone who is interviewing should know what they can and cannot ask,” she said. “No woman would be put at ease by a question like that. It is extraordinary that he would think that.”

Ms O’Driscoll said that the Minister’s questions were part of the continuum in employment relations.

“There are issues that arise all the time.”

However, she was concerned that the issue was now at the Government’s doors.

“Unfortunately it is endemic. It does happen a lot. Women get negative connotations about childcare.”