A female technical instructor who was sexually harassed by a male colleague in the classroom has been awarded €89,584 compensation.
At the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), Adjudicator, John Harraghy has ordered technical training and workforce development firm, Socrates Workforce Solutions Ltd to pay Kathleen Ryan two years pay at €64,584 after finding that she had established a prima facia case of discrimination by way of harassment and sexual harassment based on the ground of gender.
Mr Harraghy also ordered the company to pay Ms Ryan an additional €25,000 after finding that she was penalised by the firm for making complaints.
Mr Harraghy found that the company is vicariously responsible for the harassment and sexual harassment, stating that he was not satisfied that the firm took reasonable steps to prevent the harassment.
The adjudicator stated that he was fortified in this conclusion by the irrefutable evidence that the male colleague harassed Ms Ryan on two further occasions after the initial classroom incident.
Mr Harraghy stated that these were not investigated or dealt with by the firm and reinforced Ms Ryan’s “well-documented concern” that the company was not making reasonable efforts to create a safe place of work for her.
Represented by Lars Asumessen, BL, instructed by Sean Ormonde & Co. Solicitors in the case, Ms Ryan told the WRC hearing that working as a technical instructor was her ‘dream job’.
In evidence, Ms Ryan recalled on April 27th 2021, a male colleague entered her class where 10 students were present. He was not invited into the room, and he was not scheduled to work that day.
Ms Ryan stated that the colleague refused to leave when requested to do so by her and this resulted in the man leering at her and following her in the room.
Ms Ryan gave evidence that during this time she felt intimidated, undermined, and felt most uncomfortable in the classroom.
Ms Ryan was assisting students with practical work and as she was bending over a piece of work a student was working on the male colleague approached her from behind and as he moved by, put his hands on her hips, gripped her tightly and made a thrusting movement with his genitals against her.
Ms Ryan gave evidence that the man made very intimate contact with her from behind and he did so without her consent and in the presence of adult students.
Ms Ryan outlined how she was shocked, upset, intimidated, and embarrassed because of this unwanted encounter with her male colleague.
During cross-examination it was put to Ms Ryan that the CCTV time showed that the duration of the incident of alleged sexual harassment was very short – a matter of a second.
Ms Ryan said that the duration was not relevant and that she could not put a time on it and that it “feels like forever”.
Ms Ryan confirmed that she accepted a lift home with her male colleague on the day of the incident, and she said that she took the lift as she did not have a car that day, and he lived near her.
She was initially afraid to report the matter unless there was a witness but a student subsequently mentioned the incident to her.
Ms Ryan submitted that the conduct she suffered at the hands of her male colleague very clearly amounted to sexual harassment as this was unwanted conduct which related to her gender and had the purpose or effect of violating her dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for her.
The hearing was told Ms Ryan’s male colleague had “denied everything”.
In his findings, Mr Harraghy stated that the fact that Ms Ryan was the target and victim of harassment on the gender ground is not disputed in the case by the employer.
Mr Harraghy stated that it is absolutely unequivocal that the firm’s investigation into Ms Ryan’s complaint of sexual harassment “was flawed”.
He said that the fact that Ms Ryan’s male colleague felt vindicated, and that Ms Ryan was confused in relation to the inconsistent conclusions clearly demonstrates that there were many shortcomings.
Mr Harraghy stated that the firm failed to establish an investigation that would have had the requisite expertise and the investigation was not undertaken in a manner which would have given confidence to all parties that it was thorough, fair and in line with best practice.
The adjudicator stated that it was also unclear why the employer did not subsequently address the contents of Ms Ryan’s male colleague’s statement with him and failed to question why he used his response to the complaint to make threats to and harass Ms Ryan.
Mr Harraghy stated that he found it remarkable that after the matter was deemed closed by the firm, Ms Ryan was subjected to a series of text messages and a phone call from her male colleague, and she had the presence of mind to take screenshots of these before her male colleague deleted them.
Ms Ryan provided copies of these to her employer on November 15th 2021 and Mr Harraghy said that these were effectively ignored by the employer.
In response to Ms Ryan’s claims, the firm told the WRC that it did investigate the complaint and Ms Ryan also had access to the Confidential Helper as part of that process.
The firm stated that at all times it attempted to do the best they could and the only outcome that would satisfy Ms Ryan was the dismissal of her male colleague. It argued that the sanction was proportionate.
The firm stated that disciplinary action was taken against Ms Ryan’s male colleague, but she was not entitled to know what disciplinary action was taken against him as this was confidential.
Ms Ryan told the hearing that her male colleague received "a light punishment for a man they didn't want to punish".
The firm stated that it also tried to stop any reoccurrence and training was organised for the firm’s directors and separate mandatory training was arranged for all employees.