A technical training company has been ordered to pay a former lecturer nearly €90,000 after she was sexually harassed in a classroom in the presence of her students by another instructor employed by the firm.
The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found Socrates Workforce Solutions Ltd vicariously liable for the harassment and sexual harassment of Kathleen Ryan by a colleague at a state training centre in the midlands on April 27th, 2021.
A “flawed” investigation that followed Ms Ryan’s complaint left her “confused” and the perpetrator – named only as Mr A in a decision published on Tuesday – feeling as though he had been “vindicated”, the adjudicating officer in the case wrote.
The adjudicator upheld Ms Ryan’s complaints alleging discrimination under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and penalisation under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.
The complainant told the WRC last month that Mr A came into her classroom uninvited and “leered” at her as she delivered a lecture on April 27th last year.
As she was helping a student with a piece of equipment, the man went behind her and sexually assaulted her by putting his hands on her hips and pushing his genitals into her, she told the tribunal.
“I froze – I felt him push into me. All I could feel were his private parts pushed up against my behind,” she said.
She described glancing down to see the “white knuckles” of one of his hands as he gripped her.
The alleged perpetrator told an internal investigation he “stumbled and put his hands on her and apologised” while trying to pass her in the classroom, the hearing was told.
Both Mr A and Ms Ryan made comments on the final version of the investigation report but the tribunal heard that only Mr A’s comments were included verbatim.
These included a demand that Ms Ryan apologise to Mr A and a legal threat from him, the tribunal heard.
The hearing in October was attended by three directors of the firm: Ms Ryan’s line manager Thomas Maher; James Kearney, who investigated her first complaint; and Paul Comiskey, who delivered a written warning as a sanction to Mr A after a disciplinary investigation took place that was carried out and decided upon by Mr Kearney.
Ms Ryan’s barrister Lars Asmussen BL, instructed by Sean Ormonde Solicitors, said his client did not know what sanction was applied to Mr A.
Details of the sanction were revealed for the first time during the cross-examination of Mr Kearney.
“Why was it more appropriate to give an [initial] written warning rather than a final [one]?” Mr Asmussen asked.
“I’ve no answer to that. I just made the call,” Mr Kearney replied.
Ms Ryan said that in discussions with her bosses on returning to work, she was given the options of changing her hours or her workplace or continuing to work with Mr A.
“I said I didn’t want to be moved or transferred. [Thomas Maher, her line manager] said he didn’t want to transfer [Mr A],” she said. The tribunal was told Mr A resigned voluntarily in late 2021.
“I think he’s really dangerous and a real threat to women,” Ms Ryan said, adding that she thought her former place of work was “still really dangerous” in light of how her complaint had been handled. Mr A harassed Ms Ryan further with WhatsApp texts and a LinkedIn notification in August 2021, which she reported to her employer, the tribunal was told.
Sinéad Finnerty of Peninsula, appearing for the company, said her clients had done what was required of them by law by taking “such steps as are reasonably practical” in the circumstances and that Ms Ryan had been unreasonable to quit when the company grievance process was open to her.
“Mr Kearney has said he did his best to apply the procedures. Was it perfect in nature? Possibly not. Was there an attempt made? Yes,” she said. “It is absolutely unequivocal that the investigation in this case was flawed,” wrote adjudicating officer John Harraghy in his decision.
“The fact that Mr A felt vindicated, and that the complainant was confused in relation to the inconsistent conclusions clearly demonstrates that there were many shortcomings,” he wrote.
Mr Harraghy found Socrates Workforce Solutions was “vicariously liable for the harassment and sexual harassment” – a finding he said was “fortified” by the “irrefutable evidence” that Mr A went on to harass Ms Ryan twice again.
The fact that these allegations were not investigated or dealt with by the firm “reinforced” Ms Ryan’s concern that it was “not making reasonable efforts to create a safe place of work for her”.
Mr Harraghy said he accepted that Ms Ryan had “persistently and articulately” let her employer know the effects of the classroom incident.
“When the number of actions [she] endured are taken in their entirety, I conclude that the complainant was penalised as a result of the complaints,” he wrote.
In setting compensation, he noted that Ms Ryan “had to resign” from her new job when Mr A and the three directors of the respondent company secured a contract with her new employer.
Mr Harraghy found Ms Ryan had established a case of discrimination by way of harassment and sexual harassment on the ground of gender and ordered Socrates to pay her €64,584 in compensation, double her annual salary with the company.
He ruled she had also been penalised under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and ordered further compensation of €25,000 – bringing the total orders against the firm to €89,584.
The order for €64,584 is the second-largest made this year under the provisions of the Employment Equality Act.