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Case (Law) of Emergency

Three examples of HR case law that will help you learn from others’ mistakes

Apr 1, 2014

by Alberta Venture Staff

Learning from your mistakes is good, but it’s even better to learn from someone else’s. That’s what makes studying HR case law so valuable: it’s a repository of other businesses’ errors, so that you can avoid the same pitfalls without the costly court case or settlement. With that in mind, here are three lessons you can learn from the failures of others.

The Unwritten Rule

The Case: Angela’s Management Co. v. Graham

The Facts: An Edmonton-based hair salon, Angela’s Hairstyling, fired Melissa Graham, arguing that it had sufficient just cause for dismissal without notice. While filling in for the receptionist, Graham had changed the salon’s appointment book, rearranging clients to fill more appointment slots. Graham argued that in her nine years working for Angela’s, she was never told of any policy stating that she could not alter the appointment book and was never disciplined before being terminated.

The Verdict: Because the salon could not provide any written policy saying that changing the appointment book wasn’t allowed, and had never warned Graham or disciplined her for doing so, the Alberta Employment Standards Umpire determined that she was entitled to termination pay.

The Lesson: An unwritten rule isn’t a rule, and you can’t terminate an employee with just cause without evidence that they breached an important company policy … and evidence that the policy actually exists.

Not Friends Anymore

The Case: Canada Post Corp. v. Canadian Union of Postal Workers

The Facts: The complainant, a Canada Post employee for more than 30 years, was terminated after a supervisor discovered “threatening and intimidating” messages on her Facebook page. She discussed using a voodoo doll to vent her frustrations against the postal station’s managers and warned that the superintendent might go “missing permanently.”Both the supervisor who discovered the messages and the superintendent ended up taking stress leave. When confronted, she insisted that she hadn’t meant to make them public, blamed many of the posts on her drinking and apologized for the “pain and embarrassment” she caused. In arbitration the union insisted the toxic environment at the station was responsible for her posts, and that while she should be disciplined, firing was excessive.

The Verdict: The arbitrator found in favour of Canada Post. The complainant’s Facebook posts were “mean, nasty and highly personal” and her tendency to blame other factors (alcohol, or the supervisors themselves) for her posts made her a poor candidate for any other, less severe, disciplinary actions.

The Lesson: Social media postings aren’t always enough to justify termination, but in this case, the employee’s posts had significant negative impact on the company and its employees. That doesn’t just apply to public posts, either – in this case, many of the complainant’s Facebook friends were co-workers, and the arbitrator said her termination would likely have been upheld even if her page hadn’t been public.

Let Cooler Heads Prevail

The Case: Robinson v. Team Cooperheat-MQS Canada Inc.

The Facts: During a heated meeting with his supervisor and several other employees, Edward Robinson, an Edmonton-based branch manager at Cooperheat, insisted he would resign. During a meeting to discuss allegations that he had yelled at a co-worker, some of his staff accused him of being a bully and a bad manager. Robinson, who had never been the subject of any disciplinary action before, was surprised, and allegedly said he would resign if he did not receive an apology. The next day, he approached his supervisor, James Campbell, and said he wanted to withdraw his resignation. Campbell refused to allow him to do so, and Robinson sued for wrongful dismissal.

The Verdict: A justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench found that Robinson was wrongfully dismissed and awarded him a year’s salary and costs. Because of his emotional state during the meeting, the judge determined that he had not actually intended to resign, and even if he had, he could retract that resignation as long as he did so before the employer acted on it.

The Lesson: Get resignations in writing, and remember that an employee who says he resigns is entitled to cool off – an emotional outburst during a tense meeting doesn’t count. Employees also have the right to retract a resignation if they do so before the employer acts in reliance on that resignation, for instance, by hiring new staff.

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