Dalata ordered to pay €50,000 for dismissal of Sligo hotel manager

Fergal Ryan had been accused of breaching the hotel group’s cash handling rules

A hotel manager accused of breaching his employer’s cash handling rules to make payments to workers off-payroll has been awarded €50,000 by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) for unfair dismissal.

The WRC found a “threatening and patronising” letter he sent to his line manager in a bid to “extract” a bigger termination settlement was not considered in an internal disciplinary investigation, and that the petty cash allegations did not represent a sacking offence.

Fergal Ryan, the former general manager of the Clayton Hotel in Sligo, complained against Dalata Hotel Group plc under the Unfair Dismissals Act – a complaint upheld in a decision published on Thursday.

The hotel group maintained Mr Ryan committed gross misconduct by approving cash payments to workers, having being warned not to do so after paying his partner, Kasia Smolinska, to cover a restaurant shift on Christmas Day 2018.

The hotel group’s position was that it was “not appropriate for partners to work together” and that Ms Smolinska had accepted a settlement to leave its employment earlier that year on that basis. Ms Smolinska, in her evidence, disputed agreeing to that and Mr Ryan said he only learned his partner was not to work in the hotel in January 2019. He said with 450 guests there would have been “chaos” if someone had not been brought in.

The Sligo Clayton’s then-operations manager Noel McLeish told the WRC the head chef’s father had died and he urgently needed cover. Ms Smolinska said she had insisted on being paid in cash.

Aaron Shearer, for Dalata, said the breaches of the company’s cash policy were “repeated, egregious and admitted” by Mr Ryan. An internal investigation found that after being warned by the hotel’s accountant not to use petty cash to pay workers, Mr Ryan went on to make such payments to three other staff that spring.

The WRC heard these included two porters who received €70 each for taking on extra security duties in February 2019, and a further payment of €100 to a relief chef who came in on Easter Sunday 2019.

Mr Ryan said: “I wasn’t aware that the payment of cash and regularising it afterwards was not allowed.”

His solicitor, Barry Creed, said the allegations were only put to Mr Ryan after his client turned down a proposed severance offer in May 2019. Mr Shearer said the chair of the Dalata disciplinary hearing and Dermot Crowley, the appeals officer in the case – now Dalata’s chief executive – had concluded Mr Ryan “knew what he was doing was wrong”.

The petty cash allegations came to light in the wake of a May 2019 row between Mr Ryan and his line manager Des McCann which ended with Mr McCann lodging a grievance over “false and outrageous accusations” in a letter by Mr Ryan, the commission was told.

In its decision, WRC adjudicating officer Catherine Byrne found Mr Ryan had “no credible explanation” for bringing his partner in to work on Christmas Day.

“It seems to me that having paid [Ms Smolinska] in cash, the complainant sought to normalise this by paying cash to the porters in February and to the relief chef at Easter.

Mr Ryan’s letter to Mr McCann “severed the relationship of trust” between them, Ms Murphy wrote.

Another manager’s evidence was that Mr Ryan stated he would “take the company for €150,000″, which “widened the gap of mistrust”, she wrote. But she noted that only the petty cash matters were considered in the disciplinary investigation and that a reasonable employer would not have resorted to dismissal.

She awarded €50,000 for unfair dismissal, taking into account Mr Ryan’s contribution to the affair and his difficulty finding alternative work because of the impact of the pandemic.