Case Number: DEC-E2012-010- Full Case Report. Equality Tribunal

Judgment Date01 February 2012
Year2012
Docket NumberDEC-E2012-010- Full Case Report
CourtEquality Tribunal
THE EQUALITY TRIBUNAL

EMPLOYMENT EQUALITY ACTS 1998-2011

DEC-E2012-010

Parties

Julie O'Brien
(represented by Eilis Barry B.L. instructed by Byrne Wallace Solicitors)

versus

Persian Properties trading as O'Callaghan Hotels
(represented by Rosemary Mallon, B.L. instructed by Sheehan and Co. Solicitors)

File references: EE/2009/960 Date of issue: 06 February 2012


Keywords: Employment Equality Acts, Gender, Family Status, Discriminatory dismissal, Pregnancy, Harassment, Victimisation.


Dispute

1.1 The case concerns a complaint by Ms Julie O'Brien that Persian Properties trading as O'Callaghan Hotels discriminated against her on the grounds of gender and family status leading to dismissal contrary to Section 8(6)(c) of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011 [hereinafter referred to as 'the Acts']. She is also claiming harassment on the same grounds within the meaning of 14A of the Acts. A complaint of victimisation, as defined in Section 74 of the Acts, is also being made.


1.2 The complainant referred a complaint under the Act to the Director of the Equality Tribunal on 23rd December 2009 and a further complaint on 28th June 2010.
On 17th May 2010 in accordance with his powers under Section 75 of the Act, the Director delegated both cases to me, Orlaith Mannion, an Equality Officer, for investigation, hearing and decision and for the exercise of other relevant functions of the Director under Part VII of the Acts. On this date, my investigation commenced. Submissions were received from both parties and as required by Section 79(1) of the Act a joint hearing was held on 4th March 2011 and following requests for adjournments by the respondent resumed on 3rd May and 4th May. The last piece of correspondence requested by me was received on 3rd February 2012.


Summary of the complainant's case

2.1 The complainant commenced employment with the respondent on 14th May 2003 as a Director of Sales and Marketing. She had significant experience in event management companies and with an other hotel group. This position was a senior management role with overall responsibility for multi-million euro revenue targets, enhancing the O'Callaghan hotel brand domestically and internationally and as a media spokesperson for the company.

2.2 Ms O'Brien submits that within four years the accommodation revenue increased by 39% on her watch. She states that she did this by retraining the sales team to her standards. She submits that the Managing Director, Mr A, commented on several occasions that 'the sales teams had never been so well managed'. Under her direction, O'Callaghan Hotels won a number of prestigious hospitality awards including Best Sales and Marketing Team, Best Customer Retention Team and Best Website.

2.3 She maintains that there was a more sexist atmosphere in the respondent's workplace than the complainant had experienced in previous organisations. Ms O'Brien submits than Mr A was uncomfortable in her presence while she was pregnant and would avert his eyes to avoid looking at her. She states that he expressed a belief to her that the whole 'feminist business' had gone too far. Ms O'Brien claims that Mr A made several comments on the varying degrees of attractiveness of female employees. An example she gave was that a receptionist requested a high stool behind the reception desk when she was heavily pregnant. This was initially refused and only granted when the company received a doctor's note.

2.4 The complainant first became pregnant in 2004. She worked right up until late Friday 14th January 2005. A few hours after finishing work she went into labour and her son was born the following day. She submits that she was put under pressure not to take her full maternity leave. During her maternity leave, she regularly received calls and emails from the office as well as documents couriered to her and was put under pressure to attend work meetings and events during her maternity leave. Nobody was assigned to her duties during this time.

2.5 Following the birth of her second son in 2008, she submits that she was again put under pressure to work during her maternity leave. For example, just weeks after her son was born she was asked to attend a race meeting at the Curragh for the purpose of entertaining clients. Ms O'Brien submits that she felt it was a test of her commitment so she did agree to do it. During this maternity leave, Ms O'Brien also came into the office to tell an employee on her team that the employee was being made redundant as she thought it was inappropriate to delegate this task to somebody else. During both of these maternity leaves, she states that she did approximately four/five hours work a day. Ms O'Brien admits that she volunteered to do some of this work. However, she maintains that in an other organisation she would not be expected to.


2.6 Prior to her return from maternity leave in 2008, the complainant attended a business meeting with Mr A. Ms O'Brien used this opportunity to request to return to work on a four-day week basis.
She submits that Mr B [Group General Manager for O'Callaghan hotels and to whom she directly reported] was prepared to accede to the request, subject to Mr A's approval. She maintains that Mr A's reaction was volcanic. During this conversation, she maintains that she asked directly whether her employment would continue with O'Callaghan hotels if she had a third child. She submits that Mr A responded by saying that he would prefer for her not to be on the staff of O'Callaghan hotels if she had a third child. Ms O'Brien submits that while she could understand how her request was refused and was willing to continue to work a five-day week, she found the response to this request to be excessively negative. For this reason, the complainant intended resigning when she returned from maternity leave and emails to that effect were submitted as evidence. However, Mr A apologised almost immediately on her return from maternity leave. According to Ms O'Brien, he said he behaved badly because of the recession and the pressure that put on him. Ms O'Brien submits that she made it clear that she was committed to her career and the company and that she intended continuing to balance work with her family responsibilities. In an email Ms O'Brien sent to Mr B on 28th September 2008 she said:
Finally - just following our conversation last week, I would like to be very clear on one point.
I am as committed as ever to O'Callaghan Hotels. I have no intention of reducing my commitment or interest in my job. I have every intention of remaining committed to my team and dedicated to achieving targets. My personal life has never and will never affect my ability to perform. I just wanted to clarify this following the comments on family last week.

2.7 The respondent experienced a sharp decline in business in 2008. A number of people were made redundant. In early 2009, all salaries were cut by 10%. Ms O'Brien submits Mr A's behaviour during this period was very erratic. There was an atmosphere of fear in the workplace. He asked her for a business report which he had not requested since 2006. The complainant had only compiled it for her own use. Nevertheless, she handed him the report pointing out that it was rough and ready. He tore the report up in front of her face and said 'that's what I think of that...disgraceful'. She tried to explain that if she had been given notice of the request, the report would be in a more suitable format. He replied to her in an unpleasant tone to stop making excuses. Generally, Ms O'Brien submits that she had a good working relationship with Mr A. Therefore, at this meeting, she submits that she asked him whether she was 'on the redundancy list'. According to Ms O'Brien, he replied that she had nothing to worry and that she would not be made redundant.

2.8 When she became pregnant in 2009, the complainant submitted that she was extremely anxious about telling Mr A and waited until she was twenty weeks pregnant to do so. When she did on 30th June 2009 she admits he was kind in his response and congratulated her. Mr B was similarly kind when she told him. Ms O'Brien submits that she told both of them that she previously had two miscarriages and wanted to 'have this child in peace' i.e. not to work during her maternity leave. Her maternity leave was due to commence on 20th November 2009.

2.9 On 3rd July Mr B, prior to a business teleconference, referred to the stress she was under and asked her whether she 'needed the hassle going forward' and whether she 'would help Mr A'. Following the conference call, she asked Mr B to be frank with her. He advised her that Mr A wanted her to consider taking redundancy. The following Monday, Mr B asked whether she had considered the proposal. Ms O'Brien stated that she did not wish to take voluntary redundancy and asked why she was being offered it. According to her, his reply was 'sure isn't it better than being given a month's notice and told to leave'. She submits that Mr B referred to how well-connected Mr A was. Ms O'Brien maintains that she found this very threatening as she interpreted it to refer to Mr A's political connections. She regularly observed Mr A having lunch with the then Taoiseach.

2.10 Mr B set up a meeting between the complainant and Mr A the following Monday (6th July). Ms O'Brien submits...

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