The Old Conna Golf Club in south Dublin is facing two claims for damages in the High Court over alleged sexual harassment suffered by two female staff who worked with its general manager Ronan Smyth.
The two women filed internal complaints in November 2019 after an anonymous letter to the club said the “two girls in the office” had been subjected to sexual harassment.
The club was ordered last month to pay one of the women, administrator Emily Farrell, €25,000 in damages after the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found she had been sexually abused through a series of unwanted comments, jokes, gestures and contacts of a sexual nature was molested .
The WRC described the evidence from Alison Rigney, Ms Farrell’s colleague, as “appalling” after she said the atmosphere at the workplace was “toxic”.
The women were “disgusted” when Mr Smyth suggested that Ms Farrell welcome Ms Rigney’s husband to her home in a lacy negligee to “test” him about doing some home improvement at Ms Farrell’s house.
The WRC found that an investigation carried out on behalf of the club in 2020, which failed to confirm complaints of sexual harassment, was insufficient. It also found the golf club had failed to train staff to recognize Mr Smyth’s behavior as sexual harassment, saying it was a “common failure” among employers.
Both Ms Farrell and Ms Rigney have brought suits in the High Court alleging mental harm they have suffered as a result of their employment. Ms Rigney’s case was filed just last month and names both Mr Smyth and the club as defendants. Ms Farrell’s High Court case was brought in 2020.
In a recent WRC ruling for Ms Farrell, the WRC said that from December 2016, shortly after starting work at Old Conna, Ms Farrell felt subjected to an almost daily “campaign of repeated, regular and persistent harassment”.
She described how the CEO was in her office almost every day as of January 2017. She became increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed by his behavior and made repeated efforts to tell him that his behavior was inappropriate.
Mr Smyth is said to have questioned her about her divorce, intimate relationships and use of dating apps.
She began noting instances of alleged harassment on her phone calendar.
Mr Smyth paid an uninvited visit to her home in February 2017. He made comments about her dress and personal life, all of which were unwelcome. She was asked if she “got lucky and scored” one night and how that would work out with her kids at home.
There was evidence of videos Mr Smyth had sent to a WhatsApp group where both Ms Farrell and Ms Rigney contained sexual content. One referred to “an anal quest” and another to “sex for a bar of chocolate”.
Ms Farrell complained to the golf club but no proper steps were taken to address the complaint. She also complained to Mr Smyth, the bar manager and other staff. She did not raise the complaint with the president of the club as he played golf with Mr Smyth.
A bar manager indicated that Ms Farrell had complained to Mr Smyth and that he had to “retire”. Ms Farrell said the situation worsened after she was given her full-time contract in May 2017.
Ms Farrell said she panicked when staff were on holidays and suffered from increased anxiety and distress about her work environment. She was prescribed antidepressants and was taking them at the time of the hearing.
Although she became aware of the anonymous letter in 2019, she said Mr Smyth’s behavior continued. He would ask if she had sex and if she was sleeping with anyone.
Both Ms Farrell and Ms Rigney made formal complaints to the club in December 2019. An outside staffing firm dismissed 20 of 23 complaints filed by Ms Farrell, saying there was no sexual harassment.
In his evidence, Mr Smyth said his relationship with Ms Farrell had been “amicable” and they had sent 400 WhatsApps to each other. He denied all allegations against him. He said Ms Farrell never asked him to quit or indicated that his behavior was unacceptable.
Old Conna said when it learned of the complaints it acted “firmly and expeditiously” in appointing an investigator whose report was “unblemished.”
However, the WRC found that the investigation was insufficient. They said the corroborating evidence of Ms Farrell’s complaints was “convincing”. The women “put up with” Mr Smyth for a “quiet life” but the anonymous letter “gave the women the courage to make formal complaints”. It found that Ms Farrell had been sexually harassed and awarded her €25,000.
Last week, Old Conna told members it was appealing the WRC decision to the Labor Court and “is committed to ensuring a safe working environment for all”.
Mrs. Farrell said that Sunday independent that she was forced to take on the WRC case when the club ignored her complaints about its flawed investigation, instead giving her an “ultimatum” to either ignore Mr Smyth’s behavior and return to work, or to quit her job. This caused “very considerable distress and excitement”.
She said the club is prolonging her ordeal by appealing the WRC case.
“I would like to thank the party that wrote the anonymous letter that gave me and my colleague the strength to come forward and voice our grievances,” Ms Farrell said. “I am very grateful for the support I have received from family, friends, colleagues and many Old Conna members during the last very difficult time.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/old-conna-golf-club-set-for-high-court-after-wrc-upholds-claims-of-sex-harassment-41910299.html The Old Conna Golf Club faces the High Court after the WRC upheld allegations of sexual harassment