Get it in writing!

Guinness - Pension Dispute

Now that was a very strange week …. amongst some great things that happened it was the “week of the pensions” and once again I learnt a huge lesson!

The last place I wanted to be this week was the Cork Court House but this is where I found myself – I stood there on Wednesday afternoon on the first floor having a consultation with my solicitor and barrister. This related to a complication to do with my pension with Guinness Ireland, which had never been sorted out.

I remember that day in 1999 when I handed in my notice to Guinness to return to Cork and take up the General Manager role at Nash Beverages, a Heineken owned company. I had been with Guinness in Dublin for three years and before that I had worked for a Guinness owned subsidiary called Deasy’s in Cork for six years.

Leaving was a hasty affair as effectively I was moving to a competitor of Guinness so my last day at St.James Gate was the day I handed in my notice. To be fair to them I was given time that day to say my goodbyes to the many friends and colleagues that I had made during the nine year period and later I was given a really great night out by the team I worked closely with.

There was a little niggle in my mind that day about my pension – at the time there was a rule with the Guinness pension scheme that if you left the company before completing five years of service then you would have to sacrifice the company contribution element of your pension. As this was nearly 8% of my salary for the three years I was in Dublin it was a significant amount.

Ironically two years later the pension laws of the country changed and such “loyalty penalties” are now outlawed (two years service is the criteria, which probably reflects a changing work environment where people move between jobs more frequently).

As I had been part of the Guinness “family” for nine years I hoped and assumed that this loyalty penalty would not be imposed in my case so I felt I needed some reassurance.

Guinness - St James Gate In the course of my time there, including the time I was in Deasy’s  I had built up a strong relationship with a senior member of the Guinness team, Paddy Gallagher who looked after these matters. Paddy was always a real gentleman to deal with and down through the years we had many chats about many things.

I remember he have me his theory about bosses one day – There are three types he told me. Ones you love, ones you hate and ones who are neither here or there. If your career works out evenly between each of these three categories you are doing well!

While I was doing my round of goodbyes I wanted to say goodbye to Paddy when I was also able to mention my pension issue to him. He assured me that this would not be a problem and to leave it with him.

That’s what I hoped he would say ..phew!

Two years later, when I was called as a witness in a High Court Case that my former Deasy colleague and best friend Tommy Doyle had taken against Guinness I once again met Paddy. As it turned I played a part role in mediating between the sides, which was finally settled.

Paddy brought up the subject of my pension that day and again assured me that it would be sorted – I was glad to hear that because at this stage I had absolutely nothing in writing other than a email between pension people suggesting that my employment was being treated as continuous,

Unfortunately Paddy retired shortly after the time of that meeting and the responsibility for pensions was passed from one person to the next and eventually to some department Scotland.

It took me until 2007 to finally get a statement from Guinness – this came after a litany of phone calls, emails and eventually I had to resort to letters from my solicitor. Unfortunately the statement confirmed my worst fears and what I was assured would happen never actually did.

The sums involved were too significant to walk away from so unfortunately I had to take the legal route in an attempt to resolve this misunderstanding. (I  only recently discovered there was an official complaints process, and the Ombudsman route which would have been less painful and costly).

So here I was, fifteen years after leaving the company standing with my barrister and solicitor to review the case, which was due to be heard the next morning – Guinness had made no offer or no hint of settling and were instead threatening compensation for their costs . €50,000 was mentioned !!

If I walked away now, dropped my case and agreed not to take the case to the pension Ombudsman they would agree that I would not be liable for their costs, just my own…

Can you please explain why I am hearing this now – surely I have a strong case?” I was dumbfounded.

Get it in writingIt’s simple” the barrister explained. “You don’t have it in writing and we have been assured from the other side that Paddy Gallagher doesn’t recall giving you any such assurance about your pension. This is all about what we can prove”.

“We are more than happy to run the case but there is a big risk and you could get caught for their costs if we don’t win”

I felt I had a good case, a few supporting pieces of evidence and it was clear to me that with my paper trail I could demonstrate that Guinness handled my pension file and all my enquiries badly. All true but sadly not enough to confidently win a case.

I felt I just couldn’t take the risk and I really didn’t want to get tied up in court, calling in experts and witnesses including Paddy so I reluctantly decided to take the offer. It killed me to sign the agreement including the waiver the other side insisted upon about the Pensions Ombudsman (surely that is a right you have?).

I must admit I was really upset so I headed up the street to Reidy’s Wine Vault for a stiff drink to calm down and I dug deep looking for some positive lessons to take from this debacle:

  • Look for any other possible route to sort something out rather than the legal route
  • Try to establish the strength of your case as early as possible before getting sucked into the process
  • Forget about fairness and promises, concentrate on proof

My biggest lesson is that even in a scenario where there is a lot of trust, friendship and understanding you still need to “Get it in Writing” to protect yourself.

I thought once again about that whirlwind last day in Guinness and my chat with Paddy.

Don’t worry Greg, I’ll look after that for you”

“Thanks a million Paddy, I appreciate it” ..I’m guessing that’s how that chat went

Under the circumstances I would have found it really difficult to say “That’s all well and good Paddy. Do you mind if I waited here in the office  while you put that in writing for me”.

While that would have been an awkward and uncomfortable moment it would have been a lot less painful than what followed.

I turn on the news on the way home and I hear about the incredible and disgraceful CRC revelations about the secret Paul Kiely €740,000 pension payments – did he have something in writing I wondered?

That was a strange week!

Greg Canty is a partner of Fuzion

Fuzion are a Marketing, PR and Graphic Design agency in Ireland with offices in Cork and Dublin

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14 Responses to “Get it in writing!”

  1. Liam McGuire Says:

    Greg, thousands all over the country can tell similar stories about pensions and many other areas where verbal commitments have been taken in good faith. There is an inherent part of us that says if we seek something in writing it will destroy the trust that has been nurtured over so many years. Unfortunately your experience shows that there was nothing to destroy in the first place.

    The legal road is tortuous and torturous even when one has a cast iron case. Mediation is so much a better alternative – it is infinitely faster, cheaper, proven to lead to better outcomes and in the 80% of cases that are successfully resolved it leads to a solution of the individuals making.

    You’ve plenty of time before you retire Greg to fill the Guinness Pension Hole!

    • Greg Canty Says:

      Hi Liam, You are so right. I have plenty of time and a clear focus going forward is vital. I must admit I didn’t appreciate being blocked by Guinness taking case for review to the Pensions Ombudsman – I was surprised that they would even write something like that into a contract?

  2. wayne Says:

    Sorry to hear that Greg, an expensive lesson if there ever was one.

    Contracts and term agreements are now part of everyday business. I’d add to your advice by saying beware those who avoid them or casually neglect to engage. A bona fide client will happily sign a valid contract and appreciate the reasons for doing so.

  3. Antoinette McInerney Says:

    Greg, we all learn the hard way. I think you were wise, though, to cut your losses and run, its never worth the stress and the worry.

    • Greg Canty Says:

      Hi Antoinette, I hope so …. I was intimidated and didn’t appreciate being squeezed but tried to put that aside and assess the risk logically. Thanks for reading and for the reassurance

  4. irishdevdotcom Says:

    Did you get the “it depends on the judge on the day” from legal team….they usually leave this ‘pass the buck’ until they’ve taken you far enough down the road until they’ve got your…err….bucks.

    • Greg Canty Says:

      Hi Barry, I got that too. Unfortunately it’s a fact and as the “small guy” it ended up being too big a risk against a crew with deep pockets and no one who would run the risk of being at a personal loss. Sickening …

  5. glamityjane Says:

    Reblogged this on glamityjane and commented:
    Love it

  6. Fergal Bell Says:

    It’s such a tough situation, Greg. In cases like this where there are costly legal fees involved you usually only hear about the ones that win so it can seem worth it to pursue. But, when you have no certainty of winning and the law as it stood might have been on their side you could have ended up with a crippling legal bill.

    Based on how you described the story I’d probably have taken the same decision as you did.

    • Greg Canty Says:

      Fergal – thanks for the feedback. I felt I had to pursue it but realised the risk I was running. I’m disgusted that what was indicated to me was never delivered on. Cheers, Greg

      • Fergal Bell Says:

        I know what you mean. Sometimes it’s a case of the organisation protecting the bottom line without taking into account the employees (or ex-employees). It’s not the way ti should be.

  7. Mick O'Dwyer (@8_11_16_22_32) Says:

    Aye, it’s a tough ask to commit to court action and one that seems to be designed to favour those with money they are willing to risk losing in pursuit of justice. Not everyone has that luxury, and not every risk is worth taking what little might be gained.

    However, ‘getting it in writing’ provides no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome. Anyone of a certain disposition can easily circumvent the system and make matters too painful to pursue, Greg:

    I think you’ve enough character to not let the pettiness of others bring you down for too long. How you stay positive is admirable.

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