How failing to pay attention to detail and a decision to terminate an employee for workplace violence combined to create an overturned decision
As a Harassment and Discrimination investigator, I often find myself conducting investigations that have similar characteristics to the case presented below. Workplace violence is one of the most frightening and damaging actions in any workplace, and it is especially important to take quick, decisive action which is based on evidence to resolve the issue and to attempt to begin repairing the damage done. A negative decision on appeal can have many impacts. The second fascinating concept involves proper progressive discipline and the concept of front line supervisors and managers dealing with issues as they arise, rather than attempting to demonstrate a pattern post—culminating incident.
*All names and other identifying details altered to protect the innocent (and not so innocent) *
This case involves two female employees (Anne and Sophie) and an interaction deemed to be a violation of the employer’s workplace violence policy. Anne worked for the employer for 10 years and allegedly had a history of harassing and bullying co-workers (more on this later). The incident involved a verbal argument which escalated to a physical confrontation in an office environment where Anne pinned Sophie in her chair (which was wedged against a wall) and refuse to cease the behaviour. A witness to the events intervened when they heard Sophie ask for help and say she could not breathe. Nothing was said to Anne and she went home. An investigation was conducted later and Anne was terminated. The union grieved the termination and an Arbitrator was assigned.
Nobody reported the incident immediately and some reasons given were that co-workers were afraid of Anne as she had been harassing and bullying them without seeming consequence for some time. They were afraid of potential retaliation. One witness said she did not want to report the behaviour as she felt it would constitute “ratting out” a fellow union member. The incident did come to the attention of management when Sheri (a leader) approached some of the workers and asked how things were going. Sheri picked up on some tension and followed it up (Well done!).
Sophie told Sheri what happened in a lengthy and emotional conversation and also related incidents of being bullied and specifically of Anne putting her in a headlock the previous summer and of Anne deliberately unzipping Sophie’s top one day. Sheri asked Sophie to put the information in writing and assured her that retaliation would not be condoned.
The element of asking or even requiring a complainant to put complaints in writing strikes me as potentially counter-productive and potentially fraught with liability. If we wonder about potential outcomes of an employee sharing specific concerns with a leader that are prima facie breaches to any policy, much less the harassment policy, and we ask them to put the allegations in writing, what do we do with time delays, reluctance to put items in writing and even withdrawal from the process or changing information? Would a better way not be for the leader to take notes about the concerns, consult with partners, and when appropriate to the concern, initiate a more formal process and interview with the complainant to get full detail? In my opinion it is a much better path.
After some prompting Sophie provided a written statement, however it did not refer to the past bullying instances which she had reported to Sheri (now we have a problem). Sheri interviewed witnesses and obtained statements. She also interviewed Anne and read out Sophie’s statement to her. She did not provide a copy beforehand and did not give her any time to prepare a defense (contrary to the Principles of Natural Justice). Sheri did not mention the additional information that Sophie had given her orally but which she had omitted when writing it up. Anne denied the context of the situation and indicated she had simply been giving Sophie a “goodbye hug” and there was no conflict whatsoever.
The arbitrator preferred the evidence of Sophie and the two witnesses to that of Anne’s. There were other elements to the case in which the arbitrator illustrated points wherein Anne’s credibility and the veracity of her testimony was challenged significantly.
The employer provided the rationale for Anne’s dismissal as: the incident of workplace violence, as well as “unprofessional conduct unbecoming” of her position and relied on various complaints about her behaviour in the past several years. It is important to note, the arbitrator stated, that although Anne had been counselled and spoken to about her interactions with others, in the two years preceding her discharge Anne was never disciplined as a result of her behaviour, conduct, or attitude towards other employees.
The employer relied on the one incident and also referred to a general awareness of previous incidents but did not in some cases have all the relevant information about those events and in the letter of dismissal did not rely on the past incidents. The arbitrator accepted the union’s position that the past history could not be relied upon to constitute cause as the proper progressive discipline had not been done.
The arbitrator conducted a point by point analysis of the dismissal decision as it related to the points made by management in the letter of dismissal and found that many of the grounds did not have the proper underpinning (ie formal action and documentation, and lack of proper process). The arbitrator ruled that the elements were not sufficient for dismissal.
In hindsight, I am sure we can all see that proper disciplinary processes could have played a role and could have prevented a finding that had an employee who had harassed and bullied others, (up to and including physically) in the workplace from being re-instated. This costly process could have been avoided entirely with leaders who are committed to leading and are provided the skills and understanding of scope as it relates to managing workplaces appropriately.
The termination was overturned, however, the arbitrator found Anne should not be reinstated to the workplace as she was likely to repeat the behaviour. The arbitrator wrote a well-reasoned opinion in justification of this conclusion, including that Anne steadfastly denied any wrong-doing and that her testimony had so many conflicting statements and was so totally self-serving.
In the end, the parties were instructed to negotiate an appropriate financial settlement, in lieu of re-instatement. Those direct costs can be added to the pile of indirect costs that were incurred by the mis-management of this problem employee in the workplace for the better part of 10 years.
What are we to learn from cases like this? For me, it re-enforces a strongly held belief; address problems honestly, and appropriately at the time with a steady gaze fixed to the leadership of the entire organization. Inform every conflict decision with this philosophy and that will get you half-way there. I’d love to hear what you think, you can connect with me all the usual ways!
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