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The ‘just’ in just cause

Dismissal for cause isn’t easy, but sometimes the punishment fits the crime

By Jeffrey Smith

Dismissal is not something that should be taken lightly, either by the dismissing employer or the dismissed employee. While the ending of the employment relationship obviously has significant effects on the employee, there can be notable effects on the employer has well. If the dismissal is for cause, not only must the employer ensure it can meet the high bar for just cause, but it must also have a plan for replacing the departing employee, whether through re-assigning work to others or starting the recruitment and hiring process. So while there are legal obligations when firing someone, there are business and workplace consequences as well. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

So while there are many cases where an employer is too hasty in making the decision to dismiss an employee, there are also many instances where the employer is justified in jettisoning a worker.

By Jeffrey R. Smith

In 2012 and 2013, the Manitoba Justice Department had some issues with one of its probation officers.

Apparently, the officer allowed a client to move to another city in breach of a court order. He didn’t have the jurisdiction to make such a decision, though he said a previous manager had told him he could anyway. The officer also didn’t know the exact address of the client and it turned out the client — who had been convicted of domestic assault — was living with the victim of his crime.

The officer later went on vacation and took his appointment book home with him — contrary to policy. He didn’t advise anyone of appointments scheduled during his vacation and no-one was aware of them until a client called. Things were resolved without significant trouble but there was some risk to the public with certain individuals on probation not kept track of. The officer was fired.

The officer argued he hadn’t been trained properly and didn’t know the policy, and the union said dismissal was too harsh for what it characterized as honest mistakes. However, an arbitrator agreed with the Justice Department that the officer’s misconduct struck at the fundamental employment relationship. The officer’s decisions were in direct contradiction to policies he should have been aware of and the potential consequences placed the public at risk, which “irreparably” broke the employment relationship, said the arbitrator. Without any indication the officer would improve, dismissal was the right decision.

While dismissal for cause is not the easiest thing for employers to back up, it doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to fire someone who deserves it. Just cause has a high bar, but some employee misconduct is bad enough to reach it, and employers do have a right to manage their business without having to keep on bad employees, or pay them a hefty severance to get rid of them.

Dismissal is considered the capital punishment of the employment relationship, and sometimes the punishment fits the crime.

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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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