The former services director for Dublin drugs treatment centre Sankalpa has won €83,000 in compensation for the constructive dismissal and whistleblower retaliation.
The “aggressive and intimidatory” behaviour of the centre’s former chairman, whose name was redacted from a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) decision published on Tuesday, was done “to humiliate” the manager as penalisation for making reports to HSE officials and a TD about its governance in 2020, the tribunal found.
Complaints by Edel Ambrose under the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977, and the Protected Disclosures Act, 2014, were upheld by the Workplace Relations Commission , while a third complaint of discrimination on the grounds of her sexual orientation was dismissed.
The compensation award to Ms Ambrose, who had been Sankalpa’s most senior employee, represents more than one-eighth of the €600,000 funding the charity got in the last year she worked there.
The tribunal heard that Ms Ambrose was suspended following “unfounded” claims by a Community Employment assistant supervisor, Ms Y.
During her suspension, on June 19th, 2020, Ms Ambrose sent a “letter of concern” to HSE officials stating a “vote of no-confidence” in the centre’s directors and its then-chairwoman, the tribunal heard.
Ms Ambrose said in evidence that after being vindicated by an external investigation she wanted to set “stipulations” about Ms Y’s return to work from sick leave and to register an official grievance about Ms Y’s “spurious” claims.
However, when she stated that she was concerned about reputational damage and looked to delay her return, she was then threatened with disciplinary action, the tribunal was told. The charity then refused to process her grievance against Ms Y, she said.
By the time of a return-to-work meeting on July 10th, 2020, a new chairman was in place.
At the meeting, Ms Ambrose said the new chairman was “shaking with anger” and that she felt “intimidated and threatened”.
This was denied by a director who gave evidence for Sankalpa, Sandra Kernan, who said it “did the right thing” in suspending Ms Ambrose and that the witness’ recollection of the July meeting was that it was “positive”, with “no raised voices”.
The complainant said she had no autonomy when she got back to work as the directors took operational control of the organisation.
She said she lost access to the charity’s bank account and required the chairman’s permission to make any payments or carry out other tasks.
At a board meeting on September 17th, 2020, which Ms Ambrose termed a “kangaroo court”, she said she was “interrogated” by the chairman over minor purchases that year.
The same month, she contacted a local TD, as the charity’s credit card was locked and it could not pay its suppliers, the complainant said.
Ms Ambrose said the chairman “cross-examined” her about in a “heightened” manner, accusing her of “running” to the TD.
She had to answer questions about a specialist headlice medication she was using after an interaction with a service user, and had to explain that because she was receiving chemotherapy at the time, she could not use a normal product, she said.
Ms Ambrose resigned in October 2020.
The charity, which was represented at first by HR consultancy Peninsula Business Services and later by barrister Jason Murray BL instructed by McCartan & Burke Solicitors, denied the claims in full.
Mr Murray said the organisation was made up of voluntary members and “did great work” – adding that Ms Ambrose was suspended before making the disclosure and “should have returned to work when told to”.
WRC adjudicator Kevin Baneham noted that three of the witnesses who supported Ms Ambrose over the course of five days of hearings in the matter also quit Sankalpa at the same time as the complainant in October 2020.
He found their evidence, and that of another former director, Sarah Clancy, to be “strong and credible testimony”.
Mr Baneham found that Ms Ambrose’s suspension in summer 2020 was “retaliation” for the complainant making “stipulations” about Ms Y’s return to work – and out of keeping with the organisation’s handling of previous allegations against managers.
Mr Baneham further noted that the financial matters Ms Ambrose was questioned about by the chairman at the later meeting in September 2020 were “minor” items from the wrong financial year.
He remarked that “interrogating” Ms Ambrose over the headlice medication cost after she explained her cancer treatment was “a new low”.
He wrote that Sankalpa repudiated Ms Ambrose’s contract of employment with various acts, , and that it amounted to constructive dismissal.
He added the chairman’s “belligerent” conduct at the July and September meetings was directly linked to her disclosures to the HSE officials and the TD.
Mr Baneham ordered Sankalpa CLG to pay Ms Ambrose €23,000 under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977, and a further €60,000 for penalisation under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.
He ruled a further complaint under Employment Equality Act, on foot of certain comments alleged to have been made by Ms Y concerning Ms Ambrose’s sexuality, was “not made out”.