TWO employees at the University of Limerick have been offered nearly €60,000 each to leave their jobs, after they highlighted serious concerns relating to alleged financial mismanagement.
They claim they have been subjected to bullying, harassment and intimidation since they raised their concerns in October 2013 about money being inappropriately spent, and the mismanagement of the financial process.
The employees say that the worst moment in what they describe as almost two years of “torture” came during a night out in December 2014 when a UL colleague allegedly threatened to cause them physical harm.
Shaken, they made complaints to the gardai and a file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has directed that no charges be brought, senior gardai in Limerick told this newspaper.
The employees had previously raised concerns with their superiors about a number of payments being put through the books, the validity of which they questioned – and allegedly preferential treatment of some staff and suppliers over others.
Claiming that the rules were being bent to favour a minority, they said it made it hard for them to properly do their job, and also made them look “foolish” when certain allowances were made and others were refused.
Alcohol, they said, was “camouflaged” in the system using a different code, and they allege that the spouses of certain university staff were allowed travel abroad with them at a much higher cost to the taxpayer.
“These are only some of the examples,” they added.
The employees, who had been based at the UL campus for up to eight years, say they were initially offered €20,000 to drop their complaints, terminate their contracts and walk away.
When they refused to do so, this offer was increased some three weeks later to two years’ salary – amounting to nearly €60,000. This too was refused, and both have now been suspended indefinitely with pay.
One of the employees said they received a letter of suspension while on holidays; the other claims to have been given 10 minutes to leave the office.
“They way they treated me that day was as if I was a threat to the university and was going to commit a crime. I had no representation with me and was let walk out in a very distressed state,” the employee said.
The settlement offer made to them would have required them to sign a confidentiality clause, which would have prohibited them from speaking out or ever challenging the university under 15 different Acts, including the Data Protection Act and the Unfair Dismissals Act.
The confidentiality agreement, including the terms of severance – which was produced by Arthur Cox solicitors in Dublin - has been seen by this newspaper.
The employees told the Limerick Leader this week: “They wanted us to sign the contract straight away and then we’d be gone. But we couldn’t. It wouldn’t have been morally right to sign something like that, when so much has been done to both of us. It has been devastating and absolutely soul destroying what has been done to us.”
“We understand that situations like these continue to happen, even though we thought it would never happen to us, but we believe employees in the university are afraid to speak out. This culture still exists, but we feel we have every right to say this is what happened to us and this is how it made us feel.”
“UL were apparently baffled as to why we didn’t accept the offer, because if it were to go to the Employment Appeals Tribunal it is likely to be the highest amount we could get – if we were unfairly dismissed. But we haven’t been.”
When they refused to accept the offer, they were suspended indefinitely – with pay – this June, on the basis that their complaint to the gardai about the alleged threat by their colleague was deemed “malicious”.
“We have done nothing wrong to warrant losing our jobs, or being suspended,” the employees said. “We can’t believe that it has gone this far, and that the whole situation has been spun around on us. It should have been dealt with in a much better way. It is completely unfair and quite sickening.
“We made the complaint because we were frightened – not to be malicious. None of our concerns about wrongdoing have been investigated. Instead, they have tried to get rid of us, and sweep our concerns under the carpet.
“Why would you offer an employee €60,000 if they genuinely had done something wrong or were malicious. You wouldn’t - there would be cause to fire them through the proper channels, and this has not been the case.
“We believe we are not the first people this has happened to, but we may be the first to take this stand, and we regret that it has come to this, but it has not been of our doing.
“We have never been malicious towards anyone in our department or in the university. We have always been hard working, above and beyond the call of duty. But ‘vexatious’ or being a ‘trouble-maker’ are words used against people on campus if you complain about anything.”
This Wednesday, solicitors Arthur Cox responded to the Limerick Leader on behalf of UL, strongly refuting the allegations made by the employees. We have published the relevant part of the letter received (see below). However, the points made by Arthur Cox on behalf of UL have been strongly disputed by the employees.
They added: “We want an external investigation for things to be done fairly, for us to go back to our jobs and for someone to be held accountable. We don’t want this to happen again to us, or anyone else in the future.”
The employees have brought their issues to Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Fianna Fail deputy Willie O’Dea, Minister for Education & Skills Jan O’Sullivan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin.
Mr O’Dea told the Leader: “I am extremely concerned about this, particularly in view of the fact that the allegations they are making are very serious. I’m keeping this under closer view, and may decide to bring the matter to the attention of the Committee of Public Accounts, and would have to prepare a file for the chairman John McGuinness, and let the committee examine those allegations.”
Documentation was also sent by the HEA to UL president Don Barry, outlining the grievances of both employees.
The university was asked to respond on June 12. The employees say no response was received by them, and that they were suspended on that date.
The HEA said a response to their request was received and this provided a “comprehensive statement on the university’s position”.
In another response issued on Thursday by the HEA to the Limerick Leader, they stated: “The HEA is aware of the issues in UL; we would wish to see, and will ensure, that any allegations of malpractice are fully and thoroughly investigated; we have been in contact with the University who share our view; and that we await details of those allegations from the complainants.”.
The seven-page document from the HEA to the university, which summarises the employees’ allegations, says: “The complaints relate to a prolonged sequence of actions amounting to bullying behaviour and intimidation, being ostracised by some of their work colleagues and the creation of a hostile work environment.”
The document records the employees’ allegations and notes that it was their “studious attention to process and procedure” that brought them into conflict with management. After they raised complaints, both employees were moved to different roles within the same department on different dates. One employee says she was told she was being moved because she “was raising too many questions”.
The document notes their claim that they were “left isolated and segregated by some of their colleagues”, and excluded from work functions on campus, and during nights out, which permeated a deepening sense of fear and intimidation.
The HEA is still following up on their complaints and issues surrounding their employment.
Both employees claim they were also forced to take sick leave due to work-related stress in January 2014.
The employees discovered the Protected Disclosure Act of 2014 - which protects whistleblowers who wish to highlight wrongdoing - and they have decided to speak out now as they claim they have been unable to bring their grievances to a fair hearing outside of the university.
Under the Act, they are permitted to contact the media, and felt they had no other option but to do so at this point.
Neither employee in this case wished to be named and one said they had contemplated suicide due to the pressure they have been under over the past two years. Both have also received counselling due to the strain they have been under.
“Our reputations are being destroyed and it could be detrimental for our careers to walk away now. We love our jobs, but can’t work in this environment of being afraid to speak out.
“We were always outgoing colleagues, and loved going out with other staff. Now our confidence has been completely shattered and it has been very hard to try to build ourselves back up again after this.”
They believe that another former employee in the same department was forced to take early retirement for trying to bring her grievances to the Public Accounts Committee, and say she was required to sign a confidentiality clause upon reaching a final agreement.
The employees continued: “There is an attitude of ‘don’t speak out, don’t rock the boat’. The reason we are being punished is because we spoke out. We were told ‘Say nothing, that person is important in the university’.
“Policies are tweaked if someone is high up in the college, but then someone in a different department is told ‘No’, so you can’t do your job effectively.
“They have tortured us since we spoke out; our health has suffered and we have been out on sick leave before this. We have always gone above and beyond in our work, including staying back late at night and coming in early while all of this has been going on.
“We have resisted speaking out about this for so long because we love the university and don’t want to do anything to damage it.
“This is not about the student experience – UL is a fantastic place for students. This is about our experience with management and how staff, including us, are not being treated fairly. If you sit there and say nothing you’re fine, and we were like that for years, especially when you’re trying to hang on to a job,” they continued.
“I’d hate to think where we’d be if we were on our own in this, without the support of each other. It has just been a nightmare for both of us. We have been working in a toxic environment. We wouldn’t have been able to fight this individually; without each other we may have taken the offer due to the pressure we have been under.”
They praised Mr O’Dea for his support in this case, including informing them about the Protected Disclosures Act, 2014, a statutory framework within which workers can raise concerns regarding potential wrongdoing that has come to their attention in the workplace in the knowledge that they can avail of protections if they are penalised by their employer or suffer any detriment for doing so.
Under the Act, compensation of up to a maximum of five years’ remuneration can be awarded in the case of an unfair dismissal for having made a protected disclosure.
Mr O’Dea urged more people to speak out under the Protected Disclosures Act to highlight any potential wrongdoing, but said in this case, as in others, he recognises the difficulties people face in doing so, especially if they were faced with the prospect of signing confidentiality agreements.
The letter from Arthur Cox, issued to the Limerick Leader, states:
We do not wish to comment in detail on that process, however, it is necessary to make you aware of the following facts:
1. In December 2014, the Employees made a complaint to the University’s HR Division arising from the allegation which is referred to at point 1 of Ms Sheridan’s email [garda investigation regarding complaint]. The HR Division appointed an independent third party to investigate the allegations made. The investigator issued a report on 8 April 2015 in which he did not uphold the Employees’ complaints and furthermore, found that their complaints were malicious in their intent.
The Employees elected to appeal that decision in accordance with the University’s internal processes at a time when they were legally represented. The appeal conducted by an independent barrister upheld the finding that the complaints were malicious in their intent. Arising from that finding of a malicious complaint, the Employees are now the subject of an internal University disciplinary process and are on paid leave pending the outcome of same.
2. In addition, the Employees are involved in two separate sets of complaints involving their work colleagues. The University appointed another independent third party to investigate two additional sets of complaints. To date, the Employees have refused to engage in that investigation.
3. The Employees met with the Higher Education Authority on 5 May 2015 (i.e. subsequent to the report dated 8 April 2015 referred to in point 1 of this letter), at which meeting, for the first time, they made complaints of alleged poor or bad practices within the University’s [...] Division. The investigation of these complaints have not been finalised because of the failure of the Employees to provide additional information that has been requested of them.
We are extremely concerned that you will allege that the University has mistreated the Employees because they have made allegations of poor practices in the [...] Division. Any such allegation of mistreatment is absolutely false.