Morelli's employee felt 'violated' by sexual harassment
A YOUNG woman who was sexually harassed by a colleague at a leading ice-cream company said she was treated like "a piece of meat".
Shauna McFarland (31), from Coleraine, Co Derry, was awarded £20,000 after an industrial tribunal found she was the victim of "sleazy and sustained" verbal harassment from Remo di Vito, a supervisor at Morelli Ice Cream Limited's office in the town.
In a case backed by the Equality Commission, Ms McFarland said years of harassment had seriously affected her mental and physical health.
The tribunal heard that Mr di Vito, who is a member of the extended family who own the company, referred to Ms McFarland as "big t**s", both to her face and as a contact on his phone.
In December 2017, he sent Ms McFarland a text message - described by the tribunal as "obscene" - which included a crude reference to female genitalia.
He also made several crude sexual comments.
Ms McFarland, who began working for the company in June 2015, first complained in September 2016 that she was being sexually harassed by Mr di Vito.
Mr di Vito was given a verbal warning but the company did not investigate the complaint and the harassment began again within weeks.
In January 2018, Ms McFarland submitted a formal complaint of sexual harassment.
Morelli Ice Cream Ltd held an investigation and gave Mr di Vito a final written warning. However, the tribunal criticised the investigation as aggressive and overtly dismissive towards Ms McFarland.
The mother-of-one left the company in early 2018 on a combination of sick leave and maternity leave and did not return.
The industrial tribunal made its decision in November 2019 but its publication was delayed after Ms McFarland challenged an order which meant no one involved in the case could be named.
Ms McFarland said she challenged the anonymity clause because she "didn't want what happened to me to be hidden".
"I had a right to tell my story," she said.
She added: "I couldn't disclose what had happened to me so it was very difficult to find a job."
"Now with the anonymity being lifted... I will be able to get myself back into employment."
She said the harassment left her "feeling really violated".
"I was only 24 and this person was double my age. I felt really isolated by it," she said.
Ms McFarland said she "felt really hurt" by the company's response.
"I felt like I wasn't being believed and my complaint wasn't being taken seriously," she said.
She said the comments directed at her were "really disgusting, to the point where he continued even after I asked him to stop".
"I was going home physically upset by it... I felt like he was treating me like I was a piece of meat.
"It physically and mentally affected me. Especially with me living in a smaller community, you were going out and about and people were calling you a liar."
She thanked the Equality Commission, her partner and family for supporting her.
Mary Kitson, senior legal officer at the Equality Commission, said employers must have policies in place to protect women.
"Women, like Shauna, must feel protected from this type of behaviour and be confident that they can raise complaints without fear of being penalised and that any complaint will be dealt with effectively and in a timely and professional manner," she said.
Morelli Ice Cream Ltd said yesterday Mr di Vito no longer works for the company. It is understood he left several years ago.
A spokeswoman for the company said: "We deeply regret that a member of our team during their time of employment, was subjected to harassment by a previous member of staff whilst working at our production and distribution centre in Coleraine over four years ago.
"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.
"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."