A female office worker who experienced “extreme distress and trauma” after a male colleague attempted to pull down her trousers in an open office has been awarded over €50,000 by the Workplace Relations Commission. The commission found that Deadline Direct Ltd, trading as Deadline Couriers, failed to implement harassment prevention measures before the sexual assault occurred and ordered the maximum compensation possible to the worker.
During the hearing, adjudication officer Breiffi O’Neill was told that in May 2021, Charlotte O’Brien was leaning against a wall with her hands full when a male colleague, referred to as Mr X, attempted to pull down her trousers in front of several other male colleagues. Ms O’Brien reported the incident to the Day Manager, who did not tell her to go home, but instead informed her that it would have to be reported to the CEO. Mr X was still in his seat when Ms O’Brien returned upstairs.
The harassment followed a string of comments made over several months by Mr X concerning Ms O’Brien’s weight and appearance. Ms O’Brien also reported that Mr X proceeded to mimic and joke about what he had done to other female workers while no male colleagues assisted her.
Ms O’Brien was advised that the matter was “very serious,” and an investigation would be completed by June 10th, 2021. However, by June 15th, the matter had not yet been resolved, leading to the company apologising to Ms O’Brien. On June 17th, Ms O’Brien commenced a period of sick leave due to the assault, but the respondent stopped paying her after a few weeks. When she asked why, she received a reply that day asking when she would come back to work as she had been paid “for the last number of weeks in good faith.”
Represented by Mr Sean D. Foley of Century Law, the Dublin courier accused Ms O’Brien of not fully engaging in the grievance process, namely, both the mediation process and the investigation into her complaint of sexual assault. The respondent added that the investigation process was “complicated by the Complainant’s failure to engage with the Investigator, her refusal to engage in a mediation process and by Mr X’s reluctance to provide evidence to the investigation before he had resigned from his position.”
During the hearing, company accountant, Mr Bergin left before it finished, explaining that he did not realise that “it would take so long.” Representing the company, Mr Foley said that there were no prior allegations made against Mr X prior to May 2021, and that such a “unique” incident “could not have been reasonably foreseen.”
Adjudication officer, Mr O’Neill also added that it was “bizarre” that the company suggested a mediation instead of an investigation, given the allegation of a serious sexual assault, with Mr Bergin being described by Mr O’Neill as not having any expertise in these matters or had carried out similar investigations in the past.
In his decision, Mr O’Neill found that the company’s handbook presented no evidence of a clear and distinct policy on sexual harassment, adding that the respondent failed to rebut the prima facie case of discrimination established by the Complainant. Mr O’Neill ordered the company to pay the maximum compensation to Ms O’Brien, totalling a sum of €50,440.
This case highlights the importance of companies implementing clear policies on sexual harassment in the workplace. It also emphasises the need for a thorough investigation into allegations of sexual assault, rather than suggesting mediation, which can be inappropriate in such cases. The commission’s decision sends a clear message that sexual harassment in the workplace will not be tolerated and that companies must take appropriate measures to prevent it.