The recent case A Chef v A Restaurant  30 E.L.R. 37, heard before the Workplace Relations Commission, highlights the obligation on employers to properly investigate and respond to complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The case concerned allegations made by a female restaurant worker that a chef continuously made inappropriate sexual comments towards her including comments about her body and her hair and that he would rub against her in a sexual manner as he walked past her. The complainant cited specific incidents of alleged sexual harassment which included one incident when the chef allegedly grabbed her, bit her neck and pulled her clothing and another whereby she claimed that he followed her outside while she was having a cigarette, pushed her against the bins and tried to kiss her.
The respondent did not have a complaints procedure in place to deal with cases of sexual harassment. The complainant made the head chef aware of her concerns on several occasions but did not believe that she was being taken seriously. Ultimately, she complained to the owner. The owner held a meeting with the complainant but did not conduct an investigation into the complaints. The owner told the Adjudication Officer that he wanted to assess “just how uncomfortable” the complainant was before he decided whether to deal with the matter formally or informally. While he took minutes of the meeting he had with the complainant, he inaccurately recorded what the complainant had told him and amended the minutes to state that the chef’s actions had been in jest, which the complainant had not said. The owner put the allegations to the chef, who admitted to them. Despite this, the owner did not discipline the chef and instead transferred him to a sister restaurant. He further advised the complainant not to hold a grudge.
The complainant alleged that after the chef was transferred, she found it very difficult to work in the restaurant. She claimed that the other staff would make comments such as “be careful or she might report you” and that she believed the head chef was angry at her. The complainant went out on sick leave and ultimately resigned and claimed constructive dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977 – 2015.
The Adjudication Officer found that the complainant had satisfied the test for constructive dismissal and demonstrated that there had been a significant breach going to the root of the contract. In making an award of €15,000, the Adjudication Officer criticised the manner in which the owner handled the allegations made by the complainant, in particular the amendment of the meeting minutes and the failure to suspend or discipline the chef. The Adjudicator noted that “those are not the thoughts or actions of an employer who takes sexual harassment seriously.”
This case highlights the requirement for employers to have proper procedures in place to respond to complaints of harassment in the workplace and the necessity to address such complaints in a timely manner and in accordance with the principles of natural justice.