Woman accused of sexually harassing male co-worker loses dismissal appeal

Ms Justice Niamh Hyland concluded the Labour Court was correct in holding the dismissal was within the range of reasonable responses open to the employer
Woman accused of sexually harassing male co-worker loses dismissal appeal

A woman who was sacked for gross misconduct following allegations of sexual harassment against her by a male co-worker has lost an appeal over her dismissal.

The woman, who cannot be named, was awarded €37,500 in 2019 by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) which found her dismissal was not within the range of reasonable responses open to her employer, delivery company United Parcel Service CSTC Ltd.

The WRC adjudication officer found emails she sent, including to the man who accused her of sexual harassment, were inappropriate but that no consideration had been given of the context in which she had sent the emails and of the overall effect investigations into the complaint had had on her.

The company appealed to the Labour Court which overturned the WRC decision in March 2020.

The woman appealed that decision to the High Court.

'Asked him out'

Ms Justice Niamh Hyland concluded the Labour Court was correct in holding the dismissal was within the range of reasonable responses open to the employer.

The woman began working for the company in September 2015 and around a year later her male co-worker made a complaint of sexual harassment against her.

The judge said he complained that the previous June she approached him and asked him out.

She said she did not ask him out, but told him he was "driving her mad with his mixed messages and she wished he would make up his mind", the judge said.

He said he told her he already had a girlfriend and she said he did not.

He made a further complaint that on September 23rd, 2016, she approached him at his desk and asked "could he not be nice to her for two minutes", the judge said.

'Staring at him'

He said he was too busy, but she continued to stay at his desk staring at him for a few minutes and then left.

In November 2016, the employer upheld two complaints against her but did not recommend disciplinary action.

The company said she had approached him twice making him feel as though she had invaded his personal space and making him feel uncomfortable and that this could have been interpreted by him as harassment.

She lodged an in-house appeal in which she also asked the investigators to encourage the man to enter into mediation "or she would make her own complaint against him".

The appeal upheld the finding against her.

Complaint 'made maliciously'

She then lodged her own complaint of sexual harassment and bullying against him. In March 2017, the employer found no basis for it and that her complaint was made maliciously.

She then complained about the process of the investigation and that was found not to amount to a legitimate grievance.

She then sent a detailed email to another colleague and friend of the man who accused her of harassment and another email to the man himself.

He made a further complaint against her, and she was suspended, on pay, pending investigation.

That investigation found the two emails, to the man and his colleague, were inappropriate and unwelcomed and a decision was made in July 2017 to sack her for gross misconduct.

'Misguided attempt to clear the air'

She made a further in-house appeal which failed. She then appealed to the WRC which found with her. The company appealed to the Labour Court, which overturned the WRC decision.

In her decision upholding the Labour Court finding, Ms Justice Hyland said she did not believe the woman intended to cause hurt or upset by the emails. The woman believed at the relevant time she was justified in sending them "in a misguided attempt to clear the air".

In the email to the man's friend, among the claims she made was that the man narrowly ruined her career, that he lies without conscience, that he was trying to ruin her life, and that he nearly bullied her to death, the judge said.

In the other email to the man himself, she said she was scared he would attack her, that he was shameless, arrogant and manipulative, and that sometimes she thought he was pure evil.

Judge satisfied

The judge said the essence of her claim was that the Labour Court erred in failing to explain how her behaviour constituted bullying and harassment, and that her conduct did not in fact meet the test of bullying and harassment.

The judge was satisfied the company was correct in concluding that her behaviour was bullying and harassment and warranted dismissal.

The Labour Court was also correct in concluding that the dismissal was reasonable having regard to her conduct.

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