Waterford Castle hotel owner ordered to pay sister €21,843 for unfair dismissal

A Waterford businessman’s hotel firm has been ordered to pay the hotelier’s sister the maximum compensation allowed, of €21,843, for her ‘cruel’ unfair dismissal.

At the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) adjudicator Patsy Doyle has ordered the Seamus Walsh-owned Waterford Castle Hotel and Golf Club Limited to pay Bernadette Walsh a total of €23,808 for five workplace breaches including unfair dismissal.

In relation to the unfair dismissal of Ms Walsh while on sick leave in September 2019, Ms Doyle commented that “this dismissal is a manifestation of a zero culture of fair procedures or natural justice.

The familial connection underpinning this makes it even more disrespectful.

Ms Walsh had left a $100,000 job in the Bahamas to return to her brother’s resort business in March 2015 on the minimum wage of €16,000 per annum and occupied roles as resort executive, company director, and later general manager.

Ms Walsh returned to Ireland after her brother, Seamus had bought the hotel resort, which sits on a private island, from Nama for a reported €6m.

In 2019, Ms Walsh sought a pay increase of €49,000 to €65,000 per annum.

Solicitor for Ms Walsh, David Gaffney stated that Ms Walsh was concerned at the number of hours she was putting into the business.

Ms Walsh told the hearing that she adopted a “girl Friday persona”, filling in where the service required.

The remote WRC hearing heard that Ms Walsh’s request for a pay increase was refused by her brother, Seamus Walsh, who is based primarily in Melbourne, Australia and did not attend the WRC hearing.

Six days a week

Now back living and working in the US, Ms Walsh told the hearing that she worked an average of six days a week as she oversaw all aspects of the business and this covered a three-hour commitment on Sundays.

At the hearing, Ms Walsh denied the existence of family conflict.

Ms Walsh told the hearing that she had been “shocked” by her dismissal in September 2019.

Ms Walsh stated that she had tried to advance the case for her hours and salary at a meeting on August 20, 2019, with Mr Walsh but the meeting started on wages and then drifted onto operational matters with Mr Walsh allegedly telling her that she “was the biggest problem; you are too straight”.

Ms Walsh said that after being dismissed, she had lived on her savings and job seekers’ benefit before securing a new job in March 2021.

Chief financial officer at the firm, Louise Hurley described a “breakdown in staff relations” between Ms Walsh and Mr Walsh which by August 2019 had “quite a detrimental effect on the business”.

Witness for the company, Ms Hurley stated Ms Walsh had refrained from speaking with Mr Walsh, which she said “was unviable from an operational point of view”.

Ms Hurley stated that during her employment, Ms Walsh had the full run of a three-bedroomed luxurious lodge in addition to a company car and the firm put a value of €4,800 per annum on the accommodation.

The hotel firm accepted that an unfair dismissal had taken place and at hearing the firm argued that Ms Walsh’s €16,000 salary was designed as a threshold for tax purposes.

The firm accepted that there was no substantially fair ground for Ms Walsh’s dismissal and that it failed to adopt a fair dismissal procedure in relation to the Complainant’s dismissal.

Operative Difficulties

The firm stated that by way of explanation rather than excuse, Mr Walsh was experiencing operative difficulties arising from Ms Walsh’s employment, growing familial conflict, and that familial conflict seeping into corporate matters within the firm.

The firm stated that these issues informed Mr Walsh’s decision to dismiss Ms Walsh.

In her findings, Ms Doyle found that when unfairly dismissing Ms Walsh, the company “reneged on their own procedures when they summarily dismissed the highest ranking and lowest paid member of the management team”.

Ms Doyle further stated that the impact of the decision to dismiss Ms Walsh “in such a summary judgment style was cruel and pointed to the fact that the letter of dismissal reflects the following phrase: “This decision is no reflection whatsoever on your competence or capability . Thank you for your service and loyalty; however, on the expiration of one month from the date of this letter your employment with us will end.”

Broke all the rules

Ms Doyle further found that the hotel firm “broke all the rules of fair procedures and natural justice in the dismissal of September 2nd 2019”.

Ms Doyle stated that the decision “was a unilateral action not channelled through the board and on the balance of probabilities reflected operational concerns” signalled by Ms Hurley’s reference to Mr Walsh and Ms Walsh not speaking.

Ms Doyle stated that the operational concerns were not spelled out by the hotel firm and Ms Walsh was not given time to address matters to improve.

Ms Doyle also found that then serving company director Ms Walsh “was unfairly dismissed and the dismissal disproportionate and without a stated reason”.

Ms Doyle also found that the case “requires that I do justice to the parties in applying the maximum compensation permitted to me as there is no viable means of return to the business in this case”.

Earlier in the findings, Ms Doyle stated that she found “it unusual that anyone would leave a $100,000 employment in the sun for a sub-minimum wage and a vague variety in titled positions at a family hotel”.

Ms Doyle stated that she appreciated that the business was rescued from Nama or receivership, “but I identified early in the case a lack of foundation to the business enterprise which seemed to be home to a high attrition rate of key staff and changed titles”.

Ms Doyle stated that the parties presented “a very unusual employment relationship before the WRC”, stating that Ms Walsh was simply appointed to the role by familial patronage.

For me, that amounted to an almost spiritual appointment.

Ms Doyle stated that none of the pre-employment rituals were followed, for example an interview, employment checks, a visible match fit of the candidate to the job, or an induction.

In addition to the €21,843 award for unfair dismissal, Ms Doyle also awarded €750 for an annual leave breach; €600 for two rest periods breaches; and €615.30 for a statement of terms of employment breach.

Ms Doyle recorded that in reference to the clear familial links in the case and the sensitivities that may flow into an employment relationship, she offered the parties time at the commencement of the hearing if they wished to discuss issues.

She stated: “The parties availed of the time but did not record a mutually acceptable resolution and the case progressed as planned.”

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