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Senior executive awarded €7k after being sacked over 'very offensive' WhatsApp messages

The Workplace Relations Commission has found that he was unfairly dismissed.

Image: Shutterstock/Alex Ruhl

AN AWARD-WINNING senior executive at a company in Ireland was unfairly dismissed for posting “very offensive” messages on a WhatsApp group.

The Head of Operations for the Irish arm of the company was one of seven senior staff members sacked for their messages posted to the WhatsApp group.

The other six senior managers were UK based.

Now, the company has been ordered to pay its former Irish Head of Operations €7,000 after the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found that he was unfairly dismissed.

In her ruling, WRC Adjudication Officer, Valerie Murtagh found that there were a number of procedural defects which rendered the dismissal unfair. 

She added: “However, I am satisfied that the complainant has contributed to his dismissal by his participation in the WhatsApp group, accordingly, the quantum of award has been reduced on that basis.”

Murtagh stated that the executive accepted that his actions “were ill-judged and inappropriate”. 

The man – who oversaw a workforce of 40 here and helped increase revenues to €13 million – secured alternative employment within six weeks of being unfairly dismissed at the end of September last year.

Murtagh stated that in dismissing the worker, the company did not give sufficient weight to any mitigating circumstances relating to him. 

She stated that he had a clean disciplinary record, undertook 60-hour weeks on many occasions and grew the business turnover in Ireland by 47% since taking on the role of sales manager in 2014.

Murtagh stated that the employee had nine years unblemished service with the company and won awards on behalf of the company including being a recipient of the European Best Performance Award 2016.

Murtagh stated that it may not have been best practice or prudent for the company to have two members of staff to oversee the investigation who were referred to in the WhatsApp group in derogatory terms.

‘Very offensive’

Defending its decision to sack the executive for gross misconduct on 28 September 2018, the company stated that “the messages he posted on the WhatsApp group were very offensive including posting derogatory comments about (company) employees”.

The company stated that the employee’s actions “were completely at odds with the company’s value systems” and that trust and confidence in the complainant had broken due to his actions.

The company stated that the dismissal was due to extremely serious breaches by the complainant of the company’s Social Media Policy and Code of Conduct arising from his participation in the WhatsApp Group with other senior Commercial Team Managers.

The company told the WRC that the actions of the senior employee are the type of behaviours which it cannot tolerate and cannot reasonably be expected to tolerate.

The company mounted an investigation into the WhatsApp group after a protected disclosure from one of its UK-based members.

The group had been in existence for eight months and consisted of the complainant, four of his peers based in the UK, their manager Mr D and also a more senior manager Mr G also based in the UK. 

Murtagh stated that the complainant’s activity on the WhatsApp group was roughly 15% when compared to other members of the group.

The Head of Operations told the WRC hearing that he was aware that certain content of the group was inappropriate, however he did not accept that he was a major contributor to the group or that he was encouraging of the posting of inappropriate material.

He contended that he actively sought to change the focus of the group from such material and that he did so in circumstances where he felt peer pressure to be involved in the group and not to leave it. 

The worker submitted that there were many times when he was the subject of racial abuse and slurs on the WhatsApp group from UK based colleagues. 

He stated that his own protected disclosure concerning the anti-Irish content of the group was ignored and brushed aside. 

He also contended that at no point during the course of the investigation and disciplinary process was the content of the messages put to him in any meaningful way nor was it indicated to him how the messages were in breach of the company’s code of conduct nor how they could have amounted to gross misconduct

The Head of Operations told the WRC hearing that he felt isolated within the company in terms of being the only member of the group based in Ireland.

He stated that that there was pressure put on him to contribute to the group otherwise he would be viewed as not being trustworthy. 

He stated that he did confide in a UK colleague about wanting to leave the group.

However, the complainant submits that the overriding factor for him was that he felt if he left the group, he would be out of the loop and it would be detrimental to his career. 

He contended that the WhatsApp group provided a good platform for the managers to network, share ideas and indeed to vent issues as necessary and if he exited the group, he would be cut off from the other managers.

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About the author:

Gordon Deegan

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