Unfair dismissal case raises questions about governance of charity Active Retirement Network

Governance issues in charities have come to the fore in recent years. There have been high-profile incidents of individuals behaving in ways that would not have been deemed acceptable in a corporate setting, where the focus is on accountability and the bottom line.

Now questions are being raised about another charity, Active Retirement Network Ireland (ARNI).

ARNI does essential work in organizing activities for seniors at a crucial stage of life. The member-driven organization had 25,000 members before the pandemic and is rebuilding.

It is made up of a small management team of seven people, but the board of directors is made up of members. The management team is led by Maureen Kavanagh.

His son, Peter Kavanagh, who recently completed a term as mayor of South Dublin County Council, is ARNI’s communications manager.

Last Monday the Irish Examiner reported on a highly controversial dismissal within the organization, which was deemed a “wrongful dismissal” by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

Peter Kavanagh, who recently completed a term as mayor of South Dublin County Council, is ARNI’s communications manager. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan

Siobhan Hopkins was summarily suspended in January 2020 after viewing an innocuous WhatsApp message on Peter Kavanagh’s workstation. Three months earlier, she had filed a complaint under the sick leave policy about Peter Kavanagh.

His suspension was described by the WRC as “opportunistic, punitive and carried out without due rigor”. Following disciplinary proceedings – which involved the employment of five different HR consultancies and was criticized by the WRC – she was subsequently dismissed.

“Extremely hard” dismissal

A recommendation from an appeals officer not to fire her was ignored. The WRC described the dismissal as “extremely harsh” and that “no reasonable employee would have [done] under the circumstances”.

The WRC also criticized various conflicts of interest in the case, including that of the CEO involved in a lawsuit against an employee who had previously complained about her son.

Now it appears there were other aspects of Ms Hopkins’ sacking that raise governance issues. Following a series of questions from Irish Examiner earlier this week, an emergency ARNI board meeting was called last Wednesday.

The question is whether or not ARNI’s board had detailed knowledge of Siobhan Hopkins’ dismissal or whether they were effectively kept in the dark.

The Irish Examiner learned that the minutes of the board meeting around the time she was terminated contain no specific reference to the termination and no discussion of it. Nor do the minutes of the time recording indicate that the Appeals Officer’s decision was overridden.

Siobhan Hopkins was informed of her dismissal by letter in October 2020. The letter was signed by Maureen Kavanagh and then ARNI President Kay Murphy. Ms. Murphy’s signature was in electronic form.

Earlier this year, Ms Hopkins contacted Kay Murphy as she was still aggrieved by the way she had been treated, despite the vindication she received at the WRC.

Replying to him, Ms Murphy wrote: ‘Thank you for your email. As shocking as that may sound. Your termination letter was a brand new eye opener for me and it’s the very first time I’ve seen it… I certainly didn’t write it.

Kay Murphy confirmed this position at Irish Examiner. “I’m sure I didn’t sign it,” she said.

When I saw it, I phoned the CEO and she informed me that my board had asked me to sign it. I asked to receive the minutes of the September 2020 Board of Directors but I haven’t heard from you since.

This newspaper has seen the minutes of the September 2020 board meeting. The minutes do not contain any instructions to fire Siobhan Hopkins, nor make any reference to her being fired. The only reference to the case is to a grievance procedure that Ms Hopkins had taken on the way she was dealt with.

“Discomfort” with the manipulation of matter

ARNI board members and former members confirmed there was “a lot of unease” about the handling of the case, both because of how it was affecting the organization and out of sympathy for Siobhan Hopkins, who was known to many council members.

To this end, a number of motions were tabled prior to this year’s AGM, held last May, but were ruled out of order. The current president, Anne Drury, told the Irish Examiner that they were indeed declarations presented in the form of motions. She said anyone who wanted to have a say at the AGM had the opportunity to do so.

During Active Retirement Ireland's launch of 'The Old Country' audio series on community radio stations in Ireland, Cllr.  Peter Kavanagh, Mayor of South Dublin;  Teresa Quinn, volunteer and host with CRAOL Community Radio;  Pat Quinn of CRAOL Community Radio Ireland;  and Maureen Kavanagh, CEO of Active Retirement Ireland.
During Active Retirement Ireland’s launch of ‘The Old Country’ audio series on community radio stations in Ireland, Cllr. Peter Kavanagh, Mayor of South Dublin; Teresa Quinn, volunteer and host with CRAOL Community Radio; Pat Quinn of CRAOL Community Radio Ireland; and Maureen Kavanagh, CEO of Active Retirement Ireland.

Meanwhile, around the same time, Siobhan Hopkins wrote to ARNI about her interaction with Kay Murphy. She accused ARNI of forgery in relation to Ms Murphy’s signature on the dismissal letter.

A response was prepared by leading Dublin law firm Mason Hayes Curran, dated April 20, 2022. It refuted the allegation of forgery.

He continued: “Ms. Kay Murphy, who was then President of ARNI, was actively involved in meetings, correspondence and decision-making regarding your discipline and dismissal from the organization in 2020.”

For health and safety reasons arising from Covid-19, and for your convenience, Ms. Murphy’s signature has been electronically affixed to your termination letter. She was fully aware of the contents of the letter and consented to having her signature affixed to it.

The correspondence also indicated that Ms Murphy had received a copy of the email containing the dismissal letter.

For some reason the email was never sent, but two months after it was written, Kay Murphy received a copy from the ARNI board. She was extremely upset with the way she was portrayed there and immediately wrote to the law firm.

“Mason Hayes Curran acts for Active Retirement Ireland; that’s right. However, you are not acting for me. I have had no communication from your office regarding your correspondence dated April 20, 2022.” She said she found this alarming.

She discussed her alleged role in the decision-making process regarding Siobhan Hopkins.

“Not only was I not ‘actively involved’ in the decision-making process, regarding the allegations against Siobhan Hopkins, I was not involved at all.”

She also denied that she had full knowledge of the letter or consented to having her signature affixed to it.

I have repeatedly requested copies of the minutes of the meeting where it is alleged that I had knowledge of this letter and consented to having my signature electronically affixed thereto. These minutes have not been published.

Ms Murphy told the Irish Examiner that in 2020 she received reports as the process against Ms Hopkins progressed, but she was not consulted and did not attend any meetings about it.

Two people who were board members in 2020 have confirmed that their recollection of the events coincides with that of Kay Murphy.

The current president (ARNI uses the term president to refer to the chairman of the board of directors) Anne Drury told the Irish Examiner the dismissal was a decision of the board.

Following Wednesday’s emergency board meeting, Ms Drury issued a statement saying the board “is aware that some people remain unhappy with the way certain HR matters have been handled and this will be raised. at the next board meeting.

Maureen Kavanagh told the WRC she had a good working relationship with Siobhan Hopkins before the WhatsApp incident involving her son Peter. Yet Ms Hopkins was fired in an expensive and complicated process that was heavily criticized by the WRC.

It is still unclear to what extent the board was aware of what was going on, whether they sanctioned it or whether they were, as some of them claim, kept in the dark. .

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