Employer ordered to pay €12k to worker groped at office retirement party

Company investigated incident but merely instructed offender to write colleague a letter of apology

An employer has been told to pay a worker of 36 years’ service €12,000 after she said she was groped by a drunk colleague at a retirement party in 2018.

The Workplace Relations Commission heard that the employer investigated the incident but determined that no formal sanction should take place and the woman’s colleague was instead directed to write her a letter of apology.

Making the recommendation in the industrial relations complaint, a WRC adjudicating officer wrote that if the woman had made an employment rights complaint the employer might have been ordered to pay a “higher quantum” as compensation.

The woman lodged a complaint under section 13 of the Industrial Relations Act against her employer, with their identities remaining anonymous in the commission’s written decision.

The Commission was told the worker was standing for a photo at the end of a retirement party when a colleague “groped her”.

She complained to her employer about the incident in March 2018 and a disciplinary process followed over the course of almost a year.

The worker said the disciplinary action which followed was “not proportionate compared to the nature of the intentional behaviour she was subjected to”.

She said her character had been “attacked” during the investigation and sought a declaration from the employer that the disciplinary action it took was “not robust enough”.

The worker also said it was too much to expect her to remain in the same work environment as the perpetrator – and sought a recommendation that the perpetrator be transferred.

The unidentified employer, which was represented by Amanda Kane of the Local Government Management Association, argued the complaint was investigated through its dignity at work policy.

“It was determined that no formal sanction take place, but the colleague was directed to write a letter of apology to the employee,” she said.

Mediation was offered but declined by the worker, Ms Kane added.

In a recommendation published on Friday morning, adjudicating officer Conor Stokes noted that the independent investigator appointed by the employer had found the incident “did occur” and a credible witness with no vested interest had called it a “deliberate act”.

The person complained of “had a lot of drink taken during the event” and said he was “completely disgusted” afterwards, according to the investigation report, seen by the commission.

The conclusion was that the incident “had the effect of offending, humiliating and intimidating the worker”, the report continued.

Mr Stokes noted further that according to the employer’s dignity at work procedures, “unwelcome physical contact” was treated as sexual harassment if it had “the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

“Although the [employer’s human resources] director concluded that there was insufficient evidence from both the investigation report and the disciplinary hearing to determine whether the actions were accidental or malicious, the person complained about was requested to issue a formal written apology,” he wrote.

“Had this dispute been taken as an employment rights complaint, this award may have been at a higher quantum,” Mr Stokes added.

He recommended the employer make a payment of €12,000 to the worker, whom he urged to engage with the mediation process offered by the employer.