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Now you see him, now you don’t

Should an employer be expected to trust an employee who disappears during his shift with no notice?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

If you were angry at something that happened at work, or were just sick of it that day, would you just up and leave? How would you handle an employee who just took off before the end of the day?

Lots of things can happen in the workplace that can make people disgruntled or annoyed at what’s going on, or at co-workers. Sometimes people start feeling sick and that may be a reason to go home. But usually, it’s not a good idea to just leave without telling someone, regardless of the reason.

But that’s what a Saskatchewan delivery driver did a couple of years ago. He’d had a couple of incidents where he’d complained about the length of his shifts and their effects on his back. His relationship with his manager became strained when he called the manager a liar and threatened to report the company to government authorities. The driver was given a warning for insubordination.

One day, the driver found his schedule had been changed without his consent and he had been given a longer delivery route on one of his shifts, which would mean he would have to work overtime hours. His complaints seemed to fall on deaf ears and no change was made, so he went ahead with working the disputed shift. However, partway through the shift, the driver returned to the warehouse and saw other employees lounging around. The driver took this to mean working overtime on his long shift wasn’t necessary, as there were other people available to pick up the slack. He decided to go home and, unable to find his manager, parked his truck and left.

The manager felt taking off before his work was done was a serious breach of trust and he didn’t feel he could trust the driver to do his job any more. The driver was fired, but a court recently found leaving before the end of a shift was comparable to an unreported absence — misconduct outlined in the employee manual as warranting “corrective action,” not termination of employment. The employer had to reinstate the driver with compensation for four months’ pay for the period between his dismissal and finding a new job.

The court considered the employee’s walking off the job an isolated incident unrelated to his previous instances of insubordination. But how serious should it be taken? A fundamental part of the employment relationship is the employer expects and trusts the employee to perform his job duties.

Trust is particularly important when the employee is unsupervised during the bulk of his work day, as the delivery driver was. If an employee just takes off without telling anyone, management could be worried it could happen again. In this case, it meant some deliveries to customers weren’t made that day — which could lead to unhappy customers and harm to the business.

Ultimately, isn’t that one of the worst things an employee can do?

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 or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

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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5 Comments
  • A failure to communicate
    Thursday, November 15, 2012 9:42:00 AM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    This case wasn't a labour arbitration, it was in fact decided by the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench. It's likely there is more to the story, though it's clear the employee was disgruntled. However, disgruntled or not, he left work without telling anybody. He made an assumption about the co-workers he saw lounging around — they could have just been on a break — and then made a decision on his own that overtime wasn't needed. Ultimately, that is the employer's decision.

    The employee's back issues were likely a reason for his reluctance to work long shifts, but if the problem was hindering his ability to work the shifts, he had the option of formally requesting accommodation. Paula is right: the big problem here seems to be a lack of communication on both sides that ultimately led to this situation.