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Professional conduct outside of profession

How far should high standards of professional conduct apply when employees are off duty?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

What an employee gets up to when not at work is usually none of an employer’s business. That separation — and balance — between work life and home life is important to most people, and can help manage levels of stress.

It can be good for the employer as well, since managing the day-to-day operations of a business and employees during work hours can be a difficult enough task, without worrying about what employees are doing when they’re away from work. And that’s fine, if an employee’s activities outside work don’t affect the employer. But sometimes they can, and that’s when employers might have to take notice — and action.

Certain jobs require a high level of skill and a high level of trust from both employers and the public. For employees working in those types of positions, it’s possible that off-duty behaviour can call into question that trust, if it demonstrates poor judgment. And if an employer no longer has confidence that an employee has the judgment to perform a job of high skill and responsibility, the result could be dismissal.

Recently, an Ontario arbitrator upheld the dismissal of a Toronto paramedic after his judgment was called into question due to off-duty conduct (Toronto (City) and CUPE, Local 416 (Sankar), Re, 2013 CarswellOnt 3511 (Ont. Arb. Bd.)). The paramedic was caught sitting in his car with two underage girls who were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes he had provided. He admitted to purchasing the beer and cigarettes but denied giving them to the girls, saying they just took them despite his disapproval. He also tried to tell a police officer the girls were 18 when they were really 16.

What made the circumstances even worse is the girls were from a treatment centre and the paramedic had first met them while on calls to the centre. So not only did his actions while off duty call into question his judgment and honesty, there was some tie to his job, since as the girls were former patients and he met them while on duty. This was enough for the City of Toronto to terminate the paramedic’s employment for breaching the high level of trust and professional conduct standards expected of his occupation. The arbitrator agreed, finding the misconduct to be “unpardonable” for a paramedic.

In this case, while the paramedic’s misconduct took place when he wasn’t working, it could be linked to his job because he met the girls through performing his paramedic duties. This made it more egregious, but he may have been terminated even if he had met the girls another way. When someone works in a position requiring a high level of professional conduct, how far should that standard apply outside the workplace and how much should an employee be allowed to do what they want while off duty? Does an employee’s behaviour outside of work affect the level of professionalism at work?

© 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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2 Comments
  • Just cause relies on the facts of each case
    Tuesday, August 4, 2015 10:46:00 AM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    Legislation doesn't generally touch on just cause, just the minimum requirements for termination. Just cause is usually found in the realm of common law decisions. Generally, each case must be evaluated on its own merit -- the extent of the employee's misconduct and whether it can potentially hurt the employer's business through things like harm to its reputation or disclosure of confidential information.