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Dishonesty or charity?

Can a thieving employee be trusted again, regardless of the reason for stealing?

Life is full of hills and valleys, ups and downs. When an employee is stuck in one of the down times of her life, it can affect her work and her behaviour.

If that behaviour leads to misconduct, then things might get a little sticky. How much leeway should an employee guilty of misconduct be given if outside factors are playing a role and putting the employee under extra stress?

An Ontario food services company recently faced this question when a cook at a dining hall it operated at a university was caught stealing food.  During breakfast preparation one day, the cook removed some salami and cheese from a walk-in freezer, put it in a box and took it outside. A supervisor spotted him hiding the box in a shed and, after he left, checked it out and found the food.

As it turned out, the cook had just received a phone call from his wife to say the biological father of his stepchildren had dropped off the kids without any lunch.  They didn’t have any food appropriate for the kids to take for lunch, and the cook’s wife was upset. It was after the call the cook took the food. He claimed he hadn’t thought things out completely, but might have asked the supervisor later if he could take the food and pay for it later. He noted sales of salami were “slow moving” anyway.

The company fired the cook and the firing was upheld by an arbitrator, who found the act of taking the food called into question the cook’s trustworthiness. His attempts to downplay his misconduct — which he was well aware of when he was doing it  — made it difficult to repair the employment relationship. Though his stepchildren needed food, the cook took more than was needed and later offered only to pay for the cost rather than the retail value of the food, which was much higher. Ultimately, the cook’s dishonesty outweighed the outside factors that might have justified his actions, in the eyes of both the employer and the arbitrator.

Trustworthiness is a fundamental part of the employment relationship and is often upheld as just cause for dismissal. If an employee is driven to such misconduct because of personal issues, such as in the circumstances above, does it mitigate his culpability? Regardless of the reason, the employer suffers a loss and may wonder what else the employee will do behind its back, creating an air of uncertainty that may be unfair for the employer to have to bear. Is it ever acceptable for an employee to steal from the employer? Can an employee who has a reason for misconduct like the one above be trusted afterwards?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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