It was an unusual and extreme situation — two Research In Motion (RIM) executives flying on business from Toronto to Beijing became drunk and disorderly on an Air Canada jet. Reacting to alcohol and prescription pills, the pair’s belligerent behaviour was so extreme they had to be subdued by flight attendants and passengers. One of the execs even chewed through his plastic handcuffs, according to media reports. The Boeing 777 was forced to divert from the skies over Alaska to Vancouver.
As a result, the two men — both vice-presidents at the Waterloo, Ont.-based company — were fired.
“RIM expects that its employees conduct themselves in a manner reflective of our strong principles and standards of business behaviour,” it said in a statement. “RIM does not condone behaviour that conflicts with applicable laws and employees are expected to act, at all times, with integrity and respect.”
The two men also received suspended sentences, one year’s probation for mischief and were ordered to pay about $35,000 each in restitution to Air Canada (to cover meal vouchers, hotel stays and credit vouchers to passengers). They were also barred from flying on the airline for one year.
The two employees acted in a fashion that alarmed and scared everybody on the plane, according to British Columbia Provincial Court Judge Ronald Fratkin at the sentencing hearing on Nov. 30, adding it was totally work-related behaviour and the name of the company was on the line.
“The facts are unique about the seriousness of the behaviour and the consequence of it but the legal principles aren’t unique,” said Bill Armstrong, a lawyer specializing in employment law at Armstrong Management Lawyers in Calgary. “Here you have people travelling on company business, acting in a way that’s almost completely unacceptable to any corporation and, consequently, they’re terminated for it, as well as, of course, being on the hook. I doubt RIM is going to make good for the fine either, the restitution order.”
As to whether the termination was more about employer branding than employee behaviour, the fact it made headlines and put RIM in a bad light shouldn’t make a difference, said Armstrong.
“To have two of your vice-presidents create such a disturbance on an aircraft that the aircraft diverts to Vancouver when it’s on a flight from Toronto to Beijing is behaviour that’s unacceptable,” he said. “To me, this behaviour is so outrageous that any company would be justified, whether it was a public issue or not. I would have suggested to any of my clients if two of their senior people had done this, on company travel, they’re justified in terminating them, never mind the public connection to the company or not.”
It’s not clear whether their employment was terminated for cause, said Janice Payne, a partner in the employment group at Nelligan O’Brien Payne in Ottawa. But if an employer wants to terminate for cause, “it is reasonable for employers to expect if employees are out representing them on business that they behave in a manner that does not cause inappropriate embarrassment.”
Some employers have employment contracts and policies that describe expectations of employee conduct and outline that a breach of those obligations could lead to discipline and dismissal.
While it’s not always necessary to do that, it may make it easier for an employer to succeed in a case for cause, said Payne.
“Many employers do have a practice of trying to set things up so they can prove policies were received and if they weren’t properly read, maybe it’s the employee’s problem more than the employer’s,” she said.
The policy should set out the expectations of conduct, such as employees representing the company, being the face of the company and their behaviour reflecting back on the company, said Armstrong.
However, there are certain things that are pretty obvious, such as stealing or arriving late, that are fundamental to the employment relationship and shouldn’t even need a policy, he said.
“I would have thought this fell in that category too,” said Armstrong. “Getting drunk and creating a disturbance on a plane while on company travel, to this extent, you should not have to say you need a policy to cover this.”
Executives typically understand they’re held to a higher standard, said Payne.
“That’s one of the things that will present to mind with the employer in applying its policies, making its expectations clear and sending the message it wants to send to the rest of the workplace.”
In the oil industry, for example, many workers are promoted from the oil field and while they’re not necessarily bad guys, they have a different attitude and companies shouldn’t assume they know how to behave as executives, said Don Schepens, who teaches HR at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton and is on the board of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta (HRIA).
Reminders are nice but sometimes you have to hit people on the head, so to speak, and that’s what RIM did.
“That’s part of what you would have to see,” said Schepens. “It would certainly be a wake-up call for a lot of people at that level.”
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