University of Limerick whistleblowers mediation ends without an agreement

Alan English

Reporter:

Alan English

The two employees have been instructed by UL’s HR department to return to their former positions on August 1

The two employees have been instructed by UL’s HR department to return to their former positions on August 1

A PROCESS to facilitate the return to work of two whistleblowers who were suspended from the University of Limerick’s finance department three years ago has ended without any agreement.

The two employees have now been instructed by UL’s HR department to return to their former positions on August 1, even though both roles have long since been occupied by replacement employees.

UL’s decision to require the employees known as Persons B and C to return to their former department has been met with dismay by two local Fianna Fail TDs who highlighted their case in the Dail chamber as far back as October 2015.

Before and after their suspensions, the employees raised concerns about financial matters within UL, including expenses for senior staff which they regarded as questionable.

“I am calling on UL to reconsider this decision,” said Niall Collins. “These whistleblowers played a vital role in lifting the lid on some very unethical practices. They put their careers on the line in doing so and for them not to be treated properly now is most disappointing.”

“I am absolutely flabbergasted that they are now expected to go back to the same department that their problems stemmed from,” said Willie O’Dea, who added that he was “making urgent contact with the Department of Education to see what exactly is happening here”.

Person B this week described her three-year experience as “a living nightmare”, while Person C said the receipt of a letter informing her of UL’s decision left her feeling “upset, anxious, fearful and very misled”. The latter added: “We are not unreasonable people and what we are asking for is to be heard, supported and shown compassion.”

Both were suspended in June 2015 after an external investigator who was paid by UL for his work found that they had made a malicious complaint against a colleague. They strongly disputed this finding.

Shortly after the investigator’s finding, they rejected severance offers from UL of almost €60,000 each. Their suspensions followed.

In March 2018, the women were given a personal apology by the university’s new president, Dr Des Fitzgerald. They also dropped High Court proceedings against UL after the university agreed an out-of-court settlement.

Dr Fitzgerald lifted their suspensions in November 2017, after two and a half years. This move coincided with the publication of a Higher Education Authority report written by Dr Richard Thorn, who examined finance, human resources and governance policies at UL.

The president accepted the findings of the Thorn report in full and promised to implement its recommendations, one of which was a restructure of the university’s HR department. That process is under way and it was announced on July 6 that HR director Tommy Foy had “stepped down” from his position.

Dr Fitzgerald also announced in November that UL had enlisted the services of Kieran Mulvey, the former head of the Workplace Relations Commission, to head up a mediation process with employees unhappy with their treatment by UL.

Mr Mulvey, however, held only one meeting with Persons B and C. Subsequent contact with them was through Sean O’Driscoll, a HR consultant who has also been leading the restructure of the human resources department.

The facilitation process with Persons B and C, led by Mr O’Driscoll, explored alternative roles for the employees within the university, which would have required a short course of study before the roles were taken up.

“I don’t understand why UL have done this,” Person B said, “because I was happy with the course that was suggested by Sean O’Driscoll.”

UL’s position, however, is that none of the alternative roles discussed were “viable”.

An insistence by Persons B and C that their professional reputations should be vindicated by means of a public apology also met with resistance from the university.

Person C said a public apology was important because UL previously dismissed their allegations in a statement emailed to the UL community and published on the university’s website, where it remains almost three years on.

“If they really do want the university to be a great place, they need to publicly rectify what they did — for my sake, for Person B, for the people close to us, and for those who chose to support us,” she said.

Deputy Collins also called on UL to make its apology public, stating: “An apology in private is not an apology at all. UL must do better.”

UL declined to answer a number of questions asked by the Limerick Leader this week, citing “a policy of not commenting on the personal circumstances of any individual staff members”.

A statement added: “The university is committed to every single member of the 1500 strong team of staff at UL and to ensuring an excellent and supportive working environment for them, including providing opportunities for training and upskilling, as well as family oriented flexibility. The success of University of Limerick is attributable to the commitment and dedication of its excellent staff.”

A detailed report by the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General into severance payments by UL to former staff is expected to be sent to the Minster for Education in September. The report will then go to the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC).