Tag workplace

Tag workplace

Employee Terminated For Workplace Violence – Then Overturned

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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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Many Levels of Risk: Conflict and Investigations

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Right now, today, at this very moment, there is an incident happening that will require (or if not require end up) in a formal Harassment Investigation. Some of those will land on my desk. This is a fact. I would prefer to help the leaders out there with the skill of early resolution! Yes, my company does that too! Check out our available workshops.

For those that do end up in an investigation: some will go external. Some of those will make it to my desk and I am not worried about those. They will be done well, guaranteed.

I worry for those that land on desks unfamiliar with the work, and those thinking of interviewing and investigation work as a game, as a movie or TV like confession. I worry for the organizations who incur unnecessary risks and exposure due to a lack of experience or trained resources.  To do our part, Hill Advisory has committed to donating a seat in our upcoming courses to HR Students or Non-profit organizations, who may otherwise not ever have access to this area of specialized training.

I invite you all to attend our Harassment Investigation courses, coming to a city near you in 2016 and beyond. If you don’t learn more than you believed you could and gain a totally new perspective on formal Harassment complaint and if you do not leave with more tools than you previously had and if you don’t have some fun along the way, I’ll offer you a full refund! Hope to see you in 2016.

Complaints Require Evidence

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Like many of you I enjoyed a little time off over the Holiday Season. That time seems to inevitably include the binge watching of Netflix offerings and this year the show that was all the rage was: Making a Murderer. While I am not going to wade into the criminal aspects of the case presented (no spoilers here) the show did turn my mind towards the levels of evidence and the challenges presented to any investigator. I will present the concepts of ‘prima facie’ and the ‘balance of probabilities’ below in the context of a real case and related to the landscape we find ourselves in, the Canadian labour market and tackling Harassment Investigations in the workplace. I have investigated a number of cases recently where the understanding of this concept was key.

What is prima facie?

Let’s first turn to the internet for a quick definition. “In legal practice the term generally is used to describe: the presentation of sufficient evidence by a claimant to support the legal claim (a prima facie case).” In more than a few of the cases that I investigate, research or hear about when I conduct training, it seems this concept is misunderstood or not considered at all. Simply put prima facie means that it is not sufficient for a Complainant to simply feel that they are being harassed or that discrimination is happening to them without any evidence to support that conclusion. The presentation of sufficient evidence is key. While I do not wish to minimize what is happening in broken relationships in the workplace, for the actions to rise to the level of a breach of relevant policy, they must at least rise above the level of prima facie. This means the presentation of sufficient evidence to support the claim.

To demonstrate prima facie discrimination, complainants must show that they have a characteristic protected from discrimination; that they have experienced an adverse impact; and that the protected characteristic was a factor in the adverse impact. Once the prima facie case has been established, the burden shifts to the respondent to justify the conduct or practice.

The Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that in order to satisfy the “balance of probabilities” standard of proof evidence must be “sufficiently clear, convincing and cogent.”

Case in point:

An applicant testified at an Arbitration that he applied for a managerial position, was interviewed and was not successful in the competition. He said that he had been disadvantaged in the competition because he had not been given the opportunity to act in the position prior to the hiring process. The applicant testified that the decision for the hiring was not made by the panel, but rather was made by a man that he had filed a previous complaint about. The applicant testified that the decision not to hire him had no legitimate basis, but rather was a form of discrimination. The applicant self identified as being Black and of West Indian origin.

In his Application he alleges that during the period of five years he was subject to racial discrimination in twelve job competitions and on numerous occasions while he was carrying out the duties of his job.

Decision: The Application was dismissed in its entirety. The Arbitrator did not find that the applicant established that the respondent’s actions were discriminatory. The Arbitrator was satisfied that the respondent provided credible non-discriminatory explanations for its actions.

The employer was able to provide evidence that demonstrated the hiring decision was based on a solid practice, and in fact the applicant rated 10 out of the 13 people screened in for an interview, based on the average score received from multiple scorers involved in the interview.

The applicant submitted that the interview panel was unfair, as there was no Human Resources representative on the panel and that the scores were so similar. He contended there must have been collusion and that it must have been tainted by discriminatory considerations.

The Arbitrator stated that even if there had been less than optimal interview practices, that the absence of a perfect process did not mean that the applicant was treated differently based on his race, colour or place of origin. The Arbitrator ruled that the applicant had not established a plausible link between his race, colour or place of origin and having not been selected.

The applicant testified regarding another incident during which, he stated a manager spoke to him in a demeaning manner and bullied him. The evidence of a witness in the room contradicted this allegation, as did subsequent email evidence reviewed.

Of particular note the Arbitrator pointed out that the applicant did not provide details as to how the manager treated him beyond the generalizations that he felt demeaned and bullied. He did not explain why he believed the manager’s actions were related to his race, colour and place of origin except to essentially state that because he was bullied and demeaned, it was reasonable to conclude it was somehow discriminatory. The Arbitrator ruled that the applicant failed to meet his onus to show that on a balance of probabilities anything that happened in this meeting was discriminatory.

The applicant went on sick leave for a time and later returned. He testified that when he returned two managers came into his office on separate occasions and complimented him on how well he was doing since his return. The applicant testified that he thought these comments were disingenuous and he thought the managers were making fun of him since they had smirks on their faces. He testified that he knew from his overall experience that this was a further example of being singled out, of being treated unfairly because of his race. This further demonstrates the ill-will that can be created between individuals in the workplace. A smile is seen as a smirk, a comment on a job well done is translated as sarcasm. This element of the case was dismissed for similar reasons.

There were other elements to this case, but the essence is presented here. Complaints require evidence.

In closing I would like to wish you all a great 2016, filled with all the best. May your investigations conclude well and swiftly and may every witness be pleasant and co-operative! We have workshops scheduled for 2016 and I hope to see you at one of them!

Dylan Hill