Receptionist says she was sacked for reporting suspicion vet was stealing money

By Stephen Bourke

(Pic: Stock)

A veterinary surgery receptionist who claimed she was sacked for reporting suspicions of theft by a colleague and that she was branded a “fantasist” by her employer after taking a claim over it has won €15,600 in compensation.

She told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that after she first reported cash missing from a till at the clinic where she worked, her colleague told her: “The main office don’t need to know about everything that’s going on.”

Later, when she said she found her colleague putting cash from the sale of animal medication in his own wallet, her employer told her there was “nothing” he could do because he could not find a replacement vet, she said.

In an anonymised decision issued this morning, the tribunal awarded the compensation – a year and a half’s salary to the part-time worker – after finding it most probable, in the absence of contradictory evidence from the employer, that she had been sacked for reporting her suspicions to her employer.

It upheld her complaint under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977, along with further breaches of employment law.

The receptionist said that shortly after she was first hired in August 2021 to work the desk at a satellite clinic to her employer’s main practice in a large town in the west of Ireland, she was told there had been “difficulties” in the past about “cash going missing”.

She discovered the till was short on a date the following month and immediately phoned her employer about it – knowing the only other person with access was the vet in the clinic and fearing she might be held responsible, she said.

The following day, she said her colleague at the satellite clinic had “completely changed in his attitude towards her” and told her: “The main office don’t need to know about everything that’s going on.”

Later, she noticed that the clinic’s stocks of animal medication were “going off the shelf too quickly” and suggested her employer do a stocktake, which was agreed to.

Her vet colleague, however, said she was “looking for trouble”, she said.

Then, on 16 December 2021, the receptionist said she caught the vet selling animal medicine to a customer and putting the cash in his own wallet.

The medicine was worth €60-€70, but only €10 from the sale went in the till, she said.

The receptionist told the tribunal that when she challenged the vet, he said he was “just getting change” – before then taking €50 out of his wallet and throwing it towards her as he said: “You don’t know the amount of s*** you just got yourself into.”

The complainant told the WRC she knew there was enough change in the till that day and went outside to report what she termed “obvious suspicious behaviour” to their employer.

In response, her employer told her he knew what was happening but there was “nothing” he could do because he “couldn’t get a replacement vet because they’re very hard to find in that area”.

After that, the complainant said the vet knew she had reported him and he became “very aggressive and unpleasant” in the workplace, which became “hostile” for her.

At one point, the complainant said, she became upset at work, and the vet told her: “Go outside and cry, little girl.”

The complainant said she was told by phone on New Year’s Eve by her employer that “it wasn’t going to work out” between her and the vet and that the complainant “would have to get a new job”.

The complainant’s solicitor, Catherine Bourke of Adrian P Bourke Solicitors, told the tribunal that her client had been set to take over doing full-time maternity cover for the receptionist at the main clinic starting in January – and that her client agreed to do this at first despite the dismissal.

“It was only after the complainant took the WRC complaint that the respondent became hostile towards her and complaining that she was difficult, rude to clients, undermined her colleagues and was a fantasist,” Ms Bourke said in submission, arguing that the fact her client had been asked to do the maternity cover was evidence the employer was “very happy with her work”.

Adjudicating officer Emile Daly noted that the employer had come to a hearing in November 2022, when the matter had been adjourned for submissions and so that the respondent could take legal advice.

Ms Daly wrote that she had phoned the respondent directly to check whether he would be attending the hearing – advising him that written statements he had sent to the tribunal could not be accepted as evidence.

The employer said he was “too busy” to attend but did not look for an adjournment, Ms Daly wrote, telling her he “just wanted the matter to be over with”.

The adjudicator said this was “regrettable”, but that she would go ahead with the hearing in his absence — anonymising her decision after determining that her findings “will impact third parties who are not party to this adjudication”.

She wrote that the receptionist’s uncontested evidence had “proven on the balance of probabilities that she made a protected disclosure of a reasonably-held suspicion of wrongdoing (theft)”.

“I am satisfied that had she not made this protected disclosure to the respondent, it is probable that she would not have been dismissed,” she wrote, adding that she based this finding on how close in time the allegation had been to the dismissal.

Ms Daly added that she was “pleased” to see that the complainant was “creating a new future for herself” by taking a course in childcare advocacy and had made “every effort to mitigate the situation.”

She awarded the receptionist, who had worked at the clinic for five months in all, €15,600, a sum equivalent to 1.5 years’ wages for a two-day week.

Ms Daly also awarded a further €1,380 for breaches of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 on annual leave and public holidays and the Terms of Employment (Information) Act 1994 for the failure to provide a written contract, bringing the total compensation awarded in the case to €16,980.