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.
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.
“It’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!