An office manager who was described as the "employee from hell" by her former employer has been awarded €159,705 by the Workplace Relations Commission ("WRC") after she was dismissed for raising a grievance in respect of health and safety in the workplace.

The award is one of the highest made to date by the WRC.

Background to dismissal

The complainant was employed as an office administrator/manager for over 34 years by the respondent, a small drugs company, which is a family run business. The complainant claimed that her work life deteriorated after her boss passed away and his wife took an active role in the day-to-day running of the business. The complainant raised her concerns with a director (who was also the son of her new boss) but no action was forthcoming.

The complainant claimed that her workplace difficulties were affecting her health and she was left with no alternative but to lodge a formal grievance relating to bullying and workplace safety.

It was alleged that as a direct result of these complaints the complainant was summarily dismissed from her employment just weeks later. It was further submitted that the dismissal letter acknowledged that "the termination of employment was directly linked to her having made a formal grievance".

The complainant lodged a complaint with the WRC under both the Unfair Dismissals Acts (the "UD Acts") and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (the "2005 Act"). Employers are expressly prohibited under the 2005 Act from penalising employees who raise issues in relation to safety, health and welfare in the workplace. Penalisation includes dismissal.

The respondent disputed that the complainant was penalised within the meaning of the Act and argued that there had in fact been a breakdown in the relationship between the complainant and the respondent and the complainant had been "difficult to manage". The respondent said that a "very bad atmosphere" had developed, and the complainant's attendance worsened to an unacceptable level.

The UD Acts provide for maximum compensation of two years' remuneration in respect of dismissal. By contrast, the potential compensation which can be awarded under the 2005 Act is a sum which is "just and equitable in all the circumstances". Therefore, there is no cap on a potential award for dismissal under the 2005 Act and the level of award granted is at the discretion of the adjudicator officer. As relief cannot be granted to a complainant under both the UD Acts and the 2005 Act, the complainant elected to pursue her claim under the 2005 Act.

WRC decision

The WRC held that "it is simply not credible that the complainant turned into the employee from hell… having given 30 years of unimpeachable service to the point at which it is alleged she acted in such an offensive and reprehensible manner". The respondent did not deal with the complainant's complaints or issues in respect of her behaviour despite the fact that it was "incumbent" upon the employer to do so. The WRC held that it was significant the complainant was dismissed within two weeks of making her complaint.

The WRC found that the dismissal amounted to penalisation within the meaning of the 2005 Act and awarded the complainant €159,705 in compensation.

Conclusion

This decision represents the highest award granted for penalisation of an employee under the 2005 Act. It is also one of the WRC's highest awards to date.

Employers should be aware that if an employee elects to pursue an unfair dismissal claim under the 2005 Act (rather than the UD Acts) the scope for an award of compensation under the Act is unlimited and is at the discretion of the individual adjudication officer having regard to what is just and equitable in all the circumstances. This decision serves as a reminder for employers to implement effective grievance procedures and to ensure that employee complaints (not just those which relate to health and safety) are investigated and dealt with appropriately. Given the scope for high level awards relating to penalisation connected to health and safety complaints, employers should likewise ensure they are meeting their statutory obligations under the 2005 Act.