Ashton Dog Pound in north Dublin has been ordered to pay €18,000 in compensation after a dog warden was subjected to retaliation for raising concerns about alleged animal abuse.
The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found that a series of statements made against Conor Williamson were “contrived” and “rehearsed” – and seemed to be an “orchestrated campaign” to intimidate and bully him.
However, the adjudicating officer made no finding of fact on the allegations raised by Mr Williamson – only that he had brought the allegations to his employer and then the Garda.
In a decision published on Wednesday morning, the WRC upheld his statutory complaint under the Protected Disclosures Act against David Stone and Carol Stone, trading as Ashton Dog Pound and Warden Service.
Mr Williamson gave evidence that he got no response when he made a complaint to his employer in July 2020 following the euthanasia of two dogs at the pound – and so he went to report his concerns to the Garda.
He told the tribunal at a hearing in June this year that, in the wake of that report, allegations were made against him, that he was subjected to a threat, and that his van was searched outside work hours.
The tribunal was told Mr Williamson was investigated and sanctioned with a final written warning in December 2020 on charges of refusing a “reasonable management instruction” to work on call and of making “extremely derogatory and entirely untrue” statements on Facebook in breach of its social media policy.
Mr Williamson said his employer offered him a settlement agreement the following February with a non-disclosure agreement, which he refused.
The following month, he was suspended on foot of allegations of “intimidation and threatening behaviour” made against him by other staff, he told the WRC.
A second disciplinary process concluded with a finding that he was guilty of misconduct and a 12-month extension to his final written warning.
His barrister, Béibhinn Murphy, who appeared instructed by O’Hanrahan Lally D’Alton Solicitors, argued that his client had been subjected to “unwarranted disciplinary procedures by his employer” because he had reported concerns to his bosses and the gardaí.
Hugh Hegarty, for the dog pound, said that Mr Williamson had claimed to be a whistleblower on “numerous occasions” but that the company had “no knowledge or confirmation” that this was the case.
He said Mr Williamson was claiming penalization having been fairly investigated and disciplined for an incident that preceded the “alleged whistleblowing”, before being disciplined again.
Mr Hegarty said the complainant had made “extremely derogatory and entirely untrue” statements against the company in breach of its social media policy – but that no further action had been taken after the posts were removed and therefore Mr Williamson had not been “treated to his detriment”.
He added that the complainant had been issued with a “fair and lenient” sanction for refusing a reasonable management instruction by refusing to work on-call hours.
He said it was clear that the reason for Mr Williamson’s later suspension was because more than half of the dog pound’s staff, six out of 10 employees, had made a “very serious complaint” about his behavior and that there was no connection with any alleged disclosures.
“The complainant feels that [once] he has identified himself as a whistleblower that he can act in any manner he chooses to at work and when he discovered that this is not the case, has fabricated and fashioned the idea that he has somehow been treated unfairly, simply because he has not been given carte blanche to do whatever he chooses,” Mr Hegarty said.
Adjudicating officer Valerie Murtagh wrote that Mr Williamson’s evidence, given under affirmation, had been “cogent and convincing”.
Ms Murtagh found that the investigation against him was “spurious” and that the statements alleging bullying and harassment were “contrived”.
“[These] have the hallmarks of an orchestrated campaign by management to intimidate and bully the complainant. It would appear to me that the statements had been rehearsed and I note that a number of these same staff retracted their statements shortly after making them,” she wrote.
She found that the investigation and disciplinary process had been flawed; that Mr Williamson’s suspension was penalisation, and that the complainant had been retaliated against for making allegations of animal abuse to his employer and to the Garda.
Ms Murtagh ruled Mr Williamson’s complaint under the Protected Disclosures Act to be well-founded and ordered the respondents to pay him €18,000 in compensation.