Having a laugh with the WRC

County View

County View
John Healy

If we need a smile and a chuckle on those dark evenings, then a browse through the case rulings of the Workplace Relations Commission might be just the tonic. More than most public bodies, the WRC has earned a name for itself for turning logic on its head and for proving – at least to its own satisfaction – that black can be white and right can be left. Its findings indeed can often leave one checking the calendar to ensure that the date is not, in fact, the first of April.
The WRC’s most recent contribution to the gaiety of the nation comes by way of a ruling when a gentleman, an avowed atheist, applied to the Defence Forces for appointment as a chaplain to Aiken Barracks in Dundalk. Not surprisingly, his application was rejected, whereupon the man, a former official with Atheist Ireland, complained to the WRC that he had been discriminated against. That august body, rather than responding with a spirited ‘will you go away with yourself’, opted to take up the case and commence an investigation. It recently announced its findings – the atheist had indeed been discriminated against on (wait for this) religious grounds.
At least in the atheist case there was no financial penalty, unlike so many employers who find themselves, to their bewilderment, on the wrong side of WRC rulings.
There was the owner of a supermarket in Carlow who was ordered to pay €40,000 for sacking an manager who was an alcoholic. Left in charge while his employers went to a wedding, he drank himself ‘comatose’ on vodka on the premises in their absence. On their return, he was dismissed, but the WRC found that he had been discriminated against on the basis of a disability, and awarded him the comforting €40,000.
There was the sales manager in the IT company who was sacked over repeated bullying of supervisors and work colleagues. In that case, the WRC awarded the sacked complainant €329,000 – its highest ever award. The adjudicating officer ruled that while the complainant did engage in some inappropriate behaviour, it fell a long way short of warranting his dismissal, adding helpfully that ‘any reasonable employer would have tried to understand how the employee’s observance of Ramadan was causing a difficulty for him’.
Part of the WRC remit is to adjudicate on cases brought under the Equal Status Act, which forbids discrimination in the provision of services under nine headings, ranging from gender to race to religion.
A Traveller family was awarded €22,000, against the Charleville Park Hotel in Cork, which refused to provide accommodation for three nights when the family could not produce a credit card. That order was overturned on appeal at Cork Circuit Court when Supermac boss Pat McDonagh, the hotel owner, gave evidence that it was standard policy at the hotel to only accept bookings from people with credit cards. The judge agreed, saying that the hotel was perfectly entitled to have a booking policy that required a credit card.
And then there came the case of the garden-centre manager who was sacked for giving her boss the middle finger and telling him to ‘f**k off’ in front of staff and customers – apparently not an infrequent occurrence. Bringing her case to the WRC, she was awarded €6,300, the adjudication officer ruling that the dismissal was deficient in fairness and was not proportionate. However, she did allow that the complainant had been 10 percent responsible for her own behaviour.
Quite how the figure of 10 percent was arrived at was not explained, but the owner was said to have surmised later that maybe it was because just one offending finger had been used, rather than all ten.