The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has found that a female accountant was unfairly dismissed by a logistics firm here after she told a male colleague in an email that she thought he was "pure evil".
In the email sent in June 2017, the woman also told the man, referred to as ‘Tony’ (not his real name) that he was "shameless, arrogant and manipulative…” and that he was “not a healthy individual…”.
The woman told ‘Tony’: “Sometimes I think you’re pure evil.”
The woman was sacked in July 2017 for gross misconduct after company investigators found that the content of the email to ‘Tony’ was very inappropriate, an attack on Tony’s character and “tantamount to bullying and harassment”.
However, WRC Adjudication Officer, Catherine Byrne has found that the woman was unfairly dismissed and has ordered the firm to pay her €37,500.
In her comprehensive ruling, Ms Byrne found that the dismissal “was disproportionate to the findings that her email was ‘very inappropriate’".
The email came at the end of year of strained relations between the two work colleagues marked by a complaint of sexual harassment by the man against the woman and a counter grievance by the woman.
Ms Byrne stated that company investigators upholding a complaint of sexual harassment by the man against his female colleague was 'a grave error' and resulted in a litany of misery and distress for the woman, ultimately leading to her dismissal
Mr Byrne found that although there is little scope in her report for reflecting the distress that the woman suffered, the complainant’s account and her evidence at the hearing “was compelling”.
In her closing statement at the WRC, the complainant acknowledged that, "in normal circumstances, a few things I said (in the June 12, 2017 email) would be inappropriate”.
She argued however that she should not have been in a position where she felt compelled to send the email of June 12, 2017, but “because of the year of bullying” by ‘Tony’ and her employer, she ended up feeling compelled to send it.
In her June 12 email which prompted a complaint of bullying and harassment by ‘Tony’ the woman told him: “Last August you finally ended your silent treatment of me and when I tried to make things better between us, as seemingly that’s what you wanted too, you know what happened. What do you expect now?
"I’m terrified of you. What if I respond and you turn on me again? I’d like to be on good terms with you, but I tried three times and you were nothing but awful to me, pretty much trying to ruin my life.”
The complainant went on to tell Tony how his behaviour had affected her, how she had been suicidal the previous year and how she felt he had put her through “an absolute nightmare”.
She later went on to say: “If you’d rather go back to ignoring me suit yourself. And if you don’t see anything wrong with the things you did and said, there’s really no point in us being friendly with each other.”
“PS, Despite that the past year, I’ve been nothing but tense, scared and upset around you, there was a time I actually loved being in your company. The way you couldn’t hide your attraction to me was really sweet and you can never take that away from me, so I do want to thank you for that.”
The two work colleagues were once lunchtime table-tennis playing friends but in October 2016, company investigators upheld a complaint of sexual harassment made by the man against the woman.
They made the finding after concluding that on two occasions, the woman approached ‘Tony’ at his desk and her comments and ‘Tony’s’ opinion that she invaded his personal space was interpreted by him as harassment.
‘Tony’ - who didn’t give evidence at the WRC hearing - was off work on paid leave while the complaint was investigated.
Ms Byrne stated that the finding of sexual harassment was wrong and “it is my view that this was a grave error on the part of the investigators, which resulted in a litany of misery and distress for the complainant, and ultimately, it led to her dismissal.”
Ms Byrne stated that the finding of sexual harassment against the woman “followed from an unfair and flawed investigation, where the investigators seem to me to have been inexperienced and not competent to deal with the issues confronting them”.
Ms Byrne found that the failure of the employer to appoint an independent investigator to examine Tony’s complaint of September 2016 was the starting point of the process that led to the complainant being dismissed.
Ms Byrne described the complainant as “intelligent, articulate and resourceful”.
The two work colleagues had been friendly up until June 29, 2016. Earlier in 2016, the woman said that she noticed Tony “taking quick glances” in her direction and between March and June 2016, she observed him checking her out and “looking at my chest and legs” and if she saw him looking at her, he would turn away.
In June 2016 the complainant thought that he might want to go out with her, but that he was too shy to ask.
The woman told the WRC that she wouldn’t have been opposed to ‘Tony’ asking her out and on June 29, she asked ‘Tony’ about his intentions.
She said that she told ‘Tony’ “I’m mad at you for giving me such mixed messages. but “he reacted by getting mad at me.” He told her that he had a girlfriend, but this turned out not to be true.
She said that other things should have signalled that his behaviour was strange; he told her he lived alone, and it turned out he lived with his parents and he said he paid €300 for a table tennis bat and it emerged that the bat cost €20.
The daily interaction between the two stopped until September 23 when she went to his desk to see if they could be nice to each other.
Three days later, ‘Tony’ submitted a complaint of sexual harassment against the complainant and one concerning the woman approaching his desk was upheld.
‘Tony’ also complained that the woman waited for him in her car in the mornings; constantly sent him messages on the company’s instant message system and that she stared at him at the company barbecue.
The 'car' and 'instant message' complaints were ‘neither upheld or dismissed’ and the ‘barbecue’ complaint was dismissed.
The investigators recommended that ‘Tony’ and the complainant engage in mediation to try to resolve their conflict but ‘Tony’ refused, and, on December 20, 2016, the complainant submitted a series of grievances against Tony.
These included that if 'Tony' had a girlfriend, he had paid unwanted sexual attention to the complainant by staring at her, being in places when he knew she would be and that he made a misleading complaint about being sexually harassed.
The woman told the WRC that ‘Tony’ had made her life at work intolerable, he conducted a smear campaign against her and had lied about her.
She said that ‘Tony’ ruined her name and reputation in the company, including the opinion of her bosses and the managers involved and anyone he told about her.
In response to the formal complaint, the company investigators concluded that the complainant’s allegations were made maliciously because of Tony’s refusal to engage in mediation and the matter was then treated as a disciplinary offence.
The woman appealed that decision and according to Ms Byrne’s report ultimately, the disciplinary investigation found that the complainant did not make a complaint against ‘Tony’ with malicious intent.
To bring matters to a close, the complainant asked for a review of the outcome of the sexual harassment complaint that Tony made about her in September 2016.
In her email to her bosses, the woman stated: “I would like this resolved now as soon as possible and I will give my notice next week if I can’t get this resolved by then. I have no idea how I am going to manage, but I will figure something out. I guess this is my version of a hunger strike, but the situation is intolerable for me now.”
The woman’s request was refused and she said that she sent the June 12, 2017 email because they ‘pushed me close to the edge’.