Does one wrong move warrant dismissal?

Trust takes years to build but seconds to break – so can HR lawfully sack someone for just one slip-up? HRM investigates

Does one wrong move warrant dismissal?
The saying goes that trust takes years to build but seconds to break – so does that mean HR can lawfully sack someone for just one slip-up? One employment lawyer says a particular B.C court decision can shed some light on the matter.

The case 

Employee Susan Steel had a 21-year unblemished record when bosses at Coast Capital Savings Credit Union (CCSCU) dismissed her with cause – the former helpdesk analyst had accessed a confidential document in another employee’s personal folder without permission.

All CCSCU employees are assigned a private personal folder on the company’s internal network – designed for storing confidential employment information – which other employees are unable to access. 

The only exception to the rule was that Steel could gain access in order to assist employees with technical problems – but only after the file’s owner had granted permission or if the VP of corporate security gave the go-ahead.

CCSCU also maintained strict policies with respect to accessing information and privacy and confidentiality were taken very seriously within the workplace. Each year, Steel formally acknowledged that she had reviewed, understood and signed off on several company policies including Acceptable Use Policy, Code of Conduct Policy, and the Information Confidentiality Policy.

Despite this, Steel accessed another employee’s confidential file.

“Her evidence was that she accessed the file in order to retrieve a document related to parking spot eligibility for her manager,” said Cox & Palmer lawyer Ashley Savinov. Steel claimed her manager Bryan Valdal was trying to obtain the document from fellow manager Leslie Kerr, but was having difficulty reaching her.

“Steel said that she knew of the document's existence and location because she had assisted Kerr a few weeks earlier with the file in her personal folder,” explained Savinov. “The confidential document set out a waiting list of employees that were eligible for the limited parking spots at [CCSCU] and also contained information about employees' seniority and pay grades.”

Unfortunately for Steel, while she was reviewing Kerr’s personal file, Kerr also tried to access the same document – unable to open it, she received a notification that it was already in use. (Continued...) #pb#

Kerr immediately reported this to Steel's manager who confirmed the personal file was currently open on Steel’s computer.

“Contrary to Steel's evidence, Valdal said that he was not trying to obtain a document from Kerr but rather that Steel had asked him earlier about her eligibility for a parking spot,” reveals Savinov. “He told Steel that he would reach out to Kerr to discuss but for Valdal, the issue was not a priority and he did not ask Steel to obtain any such document.”

As a result of the incident, CCSCU dismissed Steel on a "with cause" basis – insisting the company has lost confidence following the “severe breach of trust.”

Decision 

“Madam Justice Ross held that Steel occupied a position of great trust in an industry of which trust is paramount,” revealed Savinov. “In her discussion, she found that Steel violated [CCSCU’S] trust in two ways: first by opening a confidential document in another employee's file for her own purpose and second, by violating the employer’s protocols that were to govern situations in which remote access of such documents was undertaken.”

Steel's action for wrongful dismissal was dismissed – a majority of the British Columbia Court of Appeal then affirmed the decision.

“While generally, a single act of misconduct by an employee, especially one with an unblemished, lengthy employment history, is not enough to support a just cause dismissal, this case illustrates that an employee's violation of trust on one occasion, depending on the severity and circumstances of the breach, may be sufficient to support a termination with cause,” warns Savinov.

“This case also stresses the value of creating workplace polices and properly disseminating them to employees as this was a key consideration of the Court in this decision,” she adds.

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