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Two Sentences End Career

How the burdens of Leadership extend to appropriate language

An arbitration was held related to the modified discipline given to a Fire Captain (Mr John) in a large city Fire Department. The arbitration panel heard details of the events leading to the ter- mination of a Mr John, which relate to comments he made about female firefighters on the way back from a call.

The events of that day are not in dispute. The Association and the Employer agree to the content of the comments Mr John made that day and agree that serious discipline ought to have been imposed.

Mr John was riding back to the Station in a fire engine with a number of firefighters. One of the firefighters was female. Mr John asked, “Why are there so many gashes at your hall?” He was asked to repeat his comment because one firefighter could not believe what he had heard. He replied and referred to women in an extremely derogatory way using a term that was exception- ally offensive.

On making his second comment, a male firefighter pointed to the back seat, and Mr John, seeming to realize a woman was in the vehicle said, “I’m sorry, I forgot you were here.” No ac- knowledgement of the comments were made and no further discussion ensued.

Once back at the station, Mr John approached the female firefighter and said, “I’m sorry, I thought you were on another rig.”

The employer learned of the comments that day and met with Mr John the following day. He admitted to making the comments and indicated that he should not have done so. The Chief re- viewed the case and ultimately decided that Mr John should be terminated. In his testimony, the Chief described the very high priority placed on the department and himself on creating an in- clusive work environment. It was a high priority of the department to increase the number of female firefighters. The Chief stated he had high expectations of Fire Captains. They were to lead by example and set a tone to promote a culture of professionalism, teamwork and respect. The Chief considered the serious nature of the misconduct and the need to

make a forceful statement to the members of the department that such conduct would not be tolerated. He also took into account that Mr John had 33 years with the department and a discipline- free record. He acknowledged that while Mr John had apologized, he did not con- sider the apology genuine in that he considered Mr John to be sorry for making the comments in the presence of a female fire-fighter but not for making the statements overall.


The Association filed a grievance on behalf of Mr John.A Deputy Chief was assigned to hear the Step One Grievance.

Subsequent to his termination, Mr John had prepared a handwritten letter of apology to the entire department. Management decided not to circulate the letter to the entire department but did share it with the leadership group. Mr John’s letter showed genuine remorse for what had happened, including the fallout from the conflict and took full responsibility for his actions.

The Deputy Chief considered the letter to be very sincere in nature. He considered the 33 years of service by Mr John and his clean disciplinary record. He considered the misconduct to be very serious but concluded that a combined suspension/demotion would send a suffi- cient message “to the culture”.

The substituted discipline was an 8 week unpaid suspension and a temporary demotion for 6 months in length.

The Association still considered the discipline to be excessive and advanced the Grievance to Step Two where it was denied. The Grievance was subsequently advanced to arbitration.


The Employer argued that as a Captain and a leader, Mr John had the responsibility to model appropriate professional behaviour. Creating an inclusive work environment is a high priority for the department. The Employer referenced training sessions for leaders in the organization. They argued that while Mr John had long service free from discipline,the comments he made were highly offensive and entirely inconsistent with the expectation to serve as a role model. Not only were the comments vulgar and demeaning, they sent a message that in Mr John’s view,women did not belong in firefighting.

The Association acknowledged that the comments were inappropriate, vulgar and deserving of discipline. However, they considered the discipline too severe and stated that a modest suspension without the temporary demotion in rank would have been an appropriate disciplinary response taking into account a number of factors. First,the crew itself did not see the need for any further action. Second, Mr John immediately apologized to the female firefighter. Third, Mr John candidly admitted the comments and acknowledged that he was wrong. Fourth, the conduct was isolated in nature. Fifth, Mr John was remorseful as evidenced in his handwritten letter of apology.

Split Decision

The arbitration panel entered a majority decision with a partial dissension. Writ- ing for the majority the Chair commended both the Employer and the Association for theconductofthehearing,inthatthey agreed to submit the written witness state- ments to the comments rather than have the firefighters appear and give evidence, since the substance of the comments was agreed to.

The Chair considered three factors. First, the context of the workplace. He stated that the Employer had a duty to take all reasonable efforts to maintain a workplace free of discrimination and harass- ment. Firefighting is a male dominated profession with only 30 female firefighters in a total workforce of 1300.He wrote that negative attitudes towards women and hostile conduct towards women undermined the efforts of the Employer to make pro- gress on the important objective of creat- inganinclusiveworkenvironment.Sec- ond, he considered the leadership position Mr John was in. He stated that a Fire Captain was expected to lead by example. Third, he considered the content of the comments themselves. He wrote that the message from Mr John was very clear: The Fire Station was very unfortunate to get stuck with 3 women firefighters. He wrote that the female firefighter would have been demoralized by the comments and understood that her supervisor was prepared to refer to her in a repugnant and demeaning way. He stated Mr John was sending the message to the crew that it was acceptable to refer to female colleagues using degrading and demeaning terms.

The Chair considered mitigating factors and found that the initial apology was not sincere. He found that the second apology was sincere but had already had the effect of reducing the discipline from termination to a suspension and demotion.

The majority found that the modified discipline was not excessive and dismissed thegrievance.

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About Dylan Hill

As a lead facilitator in our training projects, Dylan Hill’s involvement includes conducting workshops in Respectful Workplaces; Harassment Investigation Techniques; and Dispute Resolution.

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