Shauna McFarland (32), from Coleraine, was subjected to sustained “sleazy” behaviour from her supervisor, which began in September 2016, just over a year after she started working at the famous family-run business.
The administrative assistant — then aged 24 — raised complaints after Remo Di Vito, a member of the extended family who own Morelli Ice Cream, referred to her breasts to her face and in his phone contacts.
He later texted Ms McFarland with an explicit suggestion which, he explained during the tribunal, was a crude expression from his school referring to female genitalia.
Despite the claimant raising a complaint, no investigation into her superior’s behaviour was carried out on this occasion.
Although a verbal warning was issued, no apology was made by her employer, whom, the tribunal found, showed no interest in Ms McFarland’s welfare.
The judgment criticised the “extreme leniency” of the penalty imposed and the company’s “grudging minimal compliance” with its statutory obligations.
During evidence, production manager Edmund Johnston (73) emphatically denied omitting details of sexualised verbal harassment from his notes and rejected allegations that he spread rumours of the grievance around the workplace.
The claimant described feeling like “an outsider” after complaining about the managing director’s second cousin.
Ms McFarland accused the family of closing ranks to protect Mr Di Vito, although management insisted he was given no extra status or privileges.
The tribunal also heard that subsequent probes revealed no evidence that she had ever encouraged the inappropriate chat which included inappropriate questions about her sex life.
The claimant described how Mr Di Vito, who is in his forties, would “just laugh” when she asked him to stop.
The tribunal found that Mr Di Vito’s behaviour was “probably and predictably facilitated” by the company, which failed to take appropriate steps.
It described Mr Di Vito’s behaviour as “sleazy and sustained” by any standard.
He denied telling the claimant in January 2018 to have sex with him using obscene language.
The tribunal criticised Morelli Ice Cream Ltd for being “aggressive and overtly dismissive” despite eventually issuing a final written warning.
It found that the managing director’s insistence on attending an investigation “to defend the company” completely undermined any notion of independence.
The case, which was supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), was heard in 2019; however, an anonymity order was put in place at the time. The claimant, who left the firm after going off sick and then starting her maternity leave, fought to have it lifted in part to help explain the gap on her CV. The order was removed by the tribunal this month.
“This was a very difficult time for me,” Ms McFarland said. “I wish my complaints had been taken seriously and dealt with from the beginning. I had no choice but to challenge this horrible and disgusting behaviour.”
Ms McFarland, who was never given a written contract by her former employer or provided with information about its Respect At Work policies, has urged other victims to stand up for themselves.
“I hope, by speaking out, it will help other women in similar situations to seek support and challenge it too,” she said. “No woman should have to put up with this kind of behaviour at work.”
Mary Kitson, of ECNI, said it’s unfortunate that sexual harassment continues to be a reality for many women in the workplace.
“This behaviour is simply not acceptable,” she said. “It is important that employers not only have policies and procedures in place to protect women from harassment, but they must be actively implemented also.
“Women, like Shauna, must feel protected from this type of behaviour and be confident that they can raise complaints without fear of being penalised.”
A spokesperson for Morelli Ice Cream said they “deeply regret” the incident which happened at the company’s distribution centre in Sperrin Business Park in Coleraine.
“We respect the decision of the tribunal and accept the criticism levelled at the company, using the findings to develop our procedures to safeguard all staff while in our employment,” they added.
“As a company with a strong family ethos, we pride ourselves on the relationships we have with our team, promoting dignity and respect in the workplace, and sincerely apologise to all those who have been affected.”