Community worker who claimed she was bullied awarded €9,000 for constructive dismissal

‘Calamitous’ appeal hearing ultimately made it reasonable for the worker to lose confidence and resign, WRC finds

A worker at a Donegal community group has been awarded nearly €9,000 for constructive dismissal over the handling of a series of grievances over bullying, intimidation and pay.

A Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) adjudicator criticised the length of time taken by Donegal Travellers Project CLG to investigate its employee’s complaints and said a “calamitous” appeal hearing ultimately made it reasonable for the worker to lose confidence and resign.

The non-profit organisation said it appointed the chairman of its board to hear the appeal because it was too short on money to hire a HR consultant for the job.

Caitríona Ní Cheallaigh’s complaint of constructive dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Act was upheld in a recent decision by the WRC.

She said she resigned her position in February 2020 after nearly 15 years in the community development organisation for Travellers in Donegal following a grievance investigation over a bullying complaint she made against her line manager.

Ms Ní Cheallaigh maintained the 14-month grievance investigation was defective and the dismissal of her complaint was “predetermined from the outset”.

She said she was so “disillusioned” by the affair that she felt she could no longer work for the organisation – calling it “a bitter end to the many years of hard work she had given”.

Ms Ní Cheallaigh said she should have been put on a higher point on the salary scale when she started at the company in accordance with her 2005 contract and suffered “considerable financial loss” as a result.

Finally, she said, she put in a grievance against her line manager for “bullying and poor management” which was ultimately not upheld.

It was her case that there were “defects” in the grievance process including the fact that it took some 14 months to conclude and was “replete with breaches of fair procedures”.

These included claims that nothing was being done when she raised the matter informally; that the relevant timelines were not adhered to; and that the independent investigator appointed for the grievance hearing was not agreed with her as her contract required.

When the company offered her an appeal of the findings, the appeal officer chosen was the chairman of the company’s board, she said – a man who “worked closely” with the line manager against whom she had brought the bullying complaint.

This amounted to the findings of an independent investigation being brought back inside the organisation for appeal, she submitted.

She said the chairman of the board was married to another employee of the company who had shouted at her.

Ms Ní Cheallaigh said this incident should have been met with an “adequate reprimand” from her line manager, but wasn’t, and that this formed part of her original grievance against the line manager.

She said it was “ludicrous” that the chairman could be an impartial arbiter and “highly inappropriate and unfair” that he had been appointed for the appeal.

Her union representative wrote to her employer in advance of the hearing advising that the chairman was biased, she said – but this correspondence was “ignored”.

The complainant accepted her grievances themselves were not a basis for quitting, but argued that the process – and particularly the appeal process – was “so unfair that she had no option other than to leave the job”.

She said she was then faced with an “eleventh-hour offer” to adjourn the hearing and appoint an alternative appeals officer but felt “bounced into continuing” as she did not want to create a further delay.

Ms Ní Cheallaigh said she did not avail of mediation following the appeal because by that point “she had lost any hope of fairness being adhered to by the process” and had “reached a point of departure”.

The company, which was represented by solicitor Thomas Ryan of HR consultancy Peninsula Business Services, maintained the pay dispute and the complaint regarding Ms Ní Cheallaigh’s contract were “historical” and that the adjudicating officer had no jurisdiction to consider them.

It denied the grievance process was flawed and submitted that the line manager “stepped away and stayed away” when complaints were made against her.

Engaging a third-party organisation, Graphite HR, to conduct the investigation was a “considerable expense” for the Donegal Travellers Project which it “could not afford”, Mr Ryan said – adding that the outcome was “thorough, independent and fair”.

He said it upheld Ms Ní Cheallaigh’s complaints in part.

When Ms Ní Cheallaigh appealed, the organisation “simply did not have the funds” to engage another independent third party.

The chairman of the board was chosen as appeals officer “because he had always enjoyed a very good working relationship” with Ms Ní Cheallaigh.

Mr Ryan said the precedent was clear that unhappiness with the outcome of a grievance process “is not a good reason for an employee to leave their job”.

He submitted that if Ms Ní Cheallaigh had agreed to mediation, it was likely the issues which led to the grievance “could have been ironed out”.

In her decision, adjudicating officer Emile Daly found the flaws in the appeal process made it reasonable for the complainant to conclude it was “an appeal in name only” and that her employer wanted an end to it.

Ms Ní Cheallaigh was entitled to believe her grievances were “ultimately not important” and that she was “not valued in the workplace”, she wrote.

“Having heard the respondent witnesses I do not believe this was actually the case,” she wrote.

But although Ms Ní Cheallaigh might have been incorrect, it was a reasonable belief to hold at the time she decided to leave on foot of a “manifestly defective” appeal, Ms Daly wrote.

“Given the conduct of the appeal, it was reasonable for the complainant to terminate her employment. I accept that she reached a point where she felt manifestly undervalued in the job, given her years of service to the respondent and given that members of the board of management that she had always respected no longer appeared to value her,” Ms Daly wrote.

She ordered Donegal Travellers Project to pay the complainant €8,960, a sum equivalent to four months’ loss of salary, for the constructive dismissal.

She found she had no jurisdiction to hear Ms Ní Cheallaigh’s pay claim and terms of employment complaint, as these were taken out of time.