The financial and reputational costs arising from an employee’s actions

Shannon Chamber HR is a dedicated HR and Employment Law Support Service for members of Shannon Chamber provided in partnership with Adare Human Resource Management, experts in Employment Law, Industrial Relations, Human Resources and Health & Safety at preferential rates.

Derek McKay, Managing Director at Adare Human Resource Management looks at some recent Workplace Relations Commission adjudications on cases involving members of the public and employees, and how it impacts on employers when employees discriminate against customers.

When the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) was established in October 2015, replacing the functions carried out by the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal, the Labour Relations Commission, the Rights Commission and the Employment Appeals Tribunal, it became somewhat of a one-stop shop for all types of employment claims, including relevant Equality / Equal Status complaints made by the public against businesses. Therefore, providing a platform for customers to make claims against employers and their business based on the alleged discriminatory behaviours of their employees.

There have been a number of cases recently that have been widely publicised where customers have successfully made claims against businesses in Ireland. The ruling against a coffee shop, Starbucks, in Dublin. Starbucks was ordered to pay €12,000 compensation to a customer with Asian heritage when an employee drew a smile with “slanty” eyes on the customer’s coffee cup.

It was not disputed that the employee drew the image on the cup as a way of identifying the customer and that it was a depiction of her race. While it was noted by the Adjudicating Officer that it was not the intention of the employee to cause offence to the customer, the drawing “had a degrading and humiliating effect”. Starbucks apologised to the customer and has implemented a retraining programme for the staff.

Another WRC case from January of this year involved a woman from the Traveller community and a hotel and one of its employees, where the woman was looking to book in her wedding. The WRC heard that initial communication between the woman and the wedding coordinator in the hotel had been positive and congratulatory and she extended an invite to the woman to attend an upcoming wedding fair.

However, on the day of the wedding fair, the coordinator asked the woman, in an email, for her surname and that of her partner, which had not been disclosed up to that point. Once the woman had confirmed her surname, a common surname among the Traveller community, the communication stopped. And when she and her partner turned up for the event, the coordinator was “aloof and rushed”. Further communication from the woman to the hotel was not returned.

The woman took the case on grounds of discrimination as she felt “devastated, humiliated and like a second-class citizen”. The WRC awarded the woman €15,000, the maximum award for such a case, for discrimination on the basis of being a member of the Traveller community.

Mitigating against reputational damage

These are just two recent examples of claims through the WRC where employees’ actions have not only had a financial impact on their employers, there has been significant reputational damage as well due to the adverse publicity.

We often read about issues around discrimination within organisations but when the customer is at the receiving end, it can be detrimental to the organisation’s reputation.

Equality in the workplace, which includes applicants for employers and customers, is regulated and supported by the Employment Equality Acts, 1998 – 2015, the Equal Status Acts, 2000 – 2018 as well as a number of Codes of Practice. The legislation sets out the grounds on which discrimination is prohibited. It also sets out the complaints procedures for a person to make a claim in relation to any act of discrimination to which they are subjected. The employer is obliged not to discriminate, directly or indirectly in relation to any of the nine grounds in the Acts. And importantly in the above instances, the employer is also expected to take reasonable steps to prevent any act of discrimination being committed by persons acting on behalf of the organisation.

The Codes of Practice set out that employers should

  • provide training to all employees to ensure that they do not behave inappropriately with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Encouraging greater awareness and understanding of the different protected characteristics, as well as dealing with discrimination, can help to reduce the chance of claims under the WRC and the financial impacts.
  • have Equal Opportunities, Dignity at Work and Diversity and Inclusion policies in place will help foster a more inclusive workplace. This approach places a responsibility on each individual to maintain and contribute toward an environment which respects the right to dignity of all individuals.

At Adare Human Resource Management, we provide training for managers and employees as well as support to develop the appropriate policies to ensure you as an employer are not only compliant but that your business becomes a leader in combating discrimination and bias.


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For further information on the HR and Employment Law support services provided, to arrange a meeting or to receive a quote, contact the team at Shannon Chamber – / 061 360 611