The chief executive of a leading biotech company has denied its former head of finance had “a target on her back” after complaining about getting a smaller proportional pay rise than her male colleagues.
On the final day of her Employment Equality Act complaint before the Workplace Relations Commission, a solicitor acting for the manager, Tracey McGann, claimed this complaint had been the “genesis point” for a series of events leading to her discriminatory constructive dismissal in January 2023.
The company ERS Genomics Ltd., was cofounded by Nobel laureate Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier to commercialise the genetic engineering process CRISPR. It denies all Ms McGann’s statutory complaints.
These included claims she was treated “like a waitress” by CEO Eric Rhodes at a company dinner when, in front of the three members of its board of directors, he asked her to see about more red wine for the party, her solicitor said.
In her previous evidence to the WRC, Ms McGann said she had secured a backdated salary increase after pointing out that she had got just 5.6% of a pay rise when the smallest percentage increase of any male employee had been 12.8%.
She later sought to move to part-time hours and hire an assistant to take on more “menial” work – but that the hiring process was later put on hold, with the company then moving to advertise for a vice-president to take charge of finance.
“They were replacing me,” Ms McGann said.
Mr Rhodes said a request by Ms McGann’s to move to part-time hours in May 2022 “precipitated [a] discussion within the board” about the future needs of the company – with the boardroom initially split on whether it needed to hire a “higher level of experience” in the finance role.
Mr Twomey said his client had “one positive appraisal after another” from Mr Rhodes for 2019, 2020 and 2021 and said it was “astounding” that the board began “expressing concerns” by 2022.
“It seems to me based on what you’re saying, is that you weren’t really the decision-maker here, you were a mouthpiece,” said the complainant’s solicitor, Adrian Twomey during his cross-examination.
“I am the voice-piece for the board, I accept that,” Mr Rhodes said.
However, he denied the suggestion that Ms McGann had a “target on her back” for raising the pay equality concerns.
The CEO also disagreed when Mr Twomey suggested his client was discriminated against when she was “asked to get wine for the boys as if she was a waitress” at a company dinner on 23 October 2022.
“I stood up to go to the bathroom, Eric was there with the guys … [he] turned around to me and said we’ve no red wine,” Ms McGann said in evidence when her case opened last October.
“I turned around to him and said: ‘I’m not a waitress’,” she told the WRC.
Mr Rhodes was also questioned on a series of emails to a HR consultancy on 13 September 2022 in which he wrote that the board was “asking about replacing Tracey”.
“We’re talking about someone with higher qualifications, but I don’t deny the word ‘replace’ is there,” he said.
The discussions with the HR consultancy were “to inform them of the situation and help me come up with an offer that Tracey wanted that would hopefully keep her here”, he said.
“You can’t say on the one hand you didn’t want to replace her and the other send an email to your HR consultant on how to replace her,” Mr Twomey said.
“There was also the risk Tracey would leave which would require a replacement,” Mr Rhodes said.
In closing submissions, Mr Twomey said his client had been given “a clear indication her days were numbered” by Mr Rhodes three weeks after the company dinner.
“She could accept a demotion or she could apply for what she believed was her own job – when it was made clear she wasn’t going to get it she could go and find work elsewhere,” he said.
He said the company took no action to handle his client’s complaints either verbally to Mr Rhodes or when he put them in writing in January 2023.
“The company was perfectly happy, because that was the outcome it had wanted – it had wanted my client to go,” he continued.
“I say what’s been put before you is a cobbled-together series of excuses that were dreamt up and planned in advance, as is clear from the documents and the evidence,” he added.
Rosemary Mallon BL, appearing for the company instructed by Lewis Silken & Co said: “In very simple terms, there is nothing to link the claimant’s gender to the actions she says caused her to resign.”
Counsel said it was a “business decision” by the firm to hire the vice-president and Ms McGann “resigned because she had another job … where she ultimately was financially better off”.
Ms Mallon said the suggestion that Mr Rhodes and the directors were “ridiculing” Ms McGann at the October 23rd dinner was only made by the complainant’s solicitor in submissions, and not by the worker in sworn evidence.
“I would go so far as that, to say to someone walking past your table who has the company credit card to order a bottle of wine isn’t discriminatory. Even to say, ‘when you’re passing the bar, get another round of drinks in,’ is not a discriminatory comment,” counsel said.
“There needs to be some realism about how nights out in the workplace work – and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman,” she said.
Adjudicator Michael McNamee is now considering his decision, which is to be delivered in writing to the parties in due course.