A government employee who worked in the Civil Service since 1993 has succeeded in her discrimination claim against a Government Department. The complainant alleged that she was discriminated against on the grounds of her Civil Status and her Family Status pursuant to Section 6 of the Employment Equality Act 1998.
In May 2016 the complainant applied for a position as Private Secretary to a Junior Minister of State. The complainant outlined to the WRC that she was optimistic about her chances of success in circumstances where she had over twenty years’ service, including three years as Private Secretary to the Secretary General of the Department.
As part of the selection process the complainant was interviewed by the Junior Minister himself along with a senior member of the HR department. The Minister proceeded to say to the complainant: “I know I shouldn’t be asking this, but are you a married woman? Do you have children? How old are they?” The complainant was taken aback at the line of questioning but replied that she was married with two children. The Minister then noted “That must keep you very busy”.
The complainant was ultimately unsuccessful in her application for the position, ranking third of the three final candidates. She submitted this was due to the disclosure of her family commitments during the interview and the assumption drawn therefrom that she would not be able to fully commit to the position, which would require the selected candidate to put in long and often unsocial hours including weekends.
The complainant wrote to the HR official who was present at the interview two days after it took place (at which point she was aware that she was not being offered the position) to express her dissatisfaction with the questions. She asked the official why he failed to interrupt what he knew or should have known to be an inappropriate line of questioning. The official replied to the complainant and by way of explanation he said that the Minister was trying to gain some insight into the candidates at a personal level and all candidates were asked about “outside interests and hobbies”. He noted that he recalled the Minister saying during the interview that the complainant’s answers to those questions were “irrelevant” to the selection process.
The WRC Adjudicator in her decision stated that it was ill-advised of the Minister to have sought information from the candidate which was immaterial to her suitability for the post, which he tacitly acknowledged during the interview by prefacing his questions with “I shouldn’t be saying this but…” The Adjudicator commented that she had some sympathy for the HR official as he could not have known in advance that the Minister would ask these questions and if he had, he likely would have advised against it. She agreed with the complainant that it was regrettable no intervention took place during the interview.
The Adjudicator concluded that the questions asked, together with the Minister’s observation that the complainant “must be very busy”, amounted to discrimination and therefore tainted the interview process in circumstances where the other candidates were not asked the same or comparable questions. She awarded the complainant €7,500 in compensation.
Author: Barry Walsh and Katie Keogh