Staffer fired after bad-mouthing colleagues, management in blog

Harsh postings provided more than enough reason for discharge, says Alberta arbitration board
By Lorna Harris
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/03/2008

An unapologetic Alberta government employee who used a public blog to blast co-workers, management and her department was fired, a move upheld by an arbitration board.

The worker, identified only as an administrative worker in a department that handles sensitive files, was dealing with personal issues after the illness and death of her father. When her therapist suggested she write things down to vent her feelings, she started several public blogs on the Internet.

But she included rude postings about her workplace, co-workers and supervisors. Management consisted of “imbeciles” and “idiot savants” and her supervisor was a “lunatic-in-charge.” She insulted her co-workers and broke client confidentiality.

When the employer discovered the blogs, the employee was called to a meeting, along with a union representative, and asked to explain them. She said she was only “playing with words,” felt her right of free speech was being threatened, was not thinking clearly because of her family problems and concluded: “It’s none of your business.”

What she did not do, according to management, was apologize and agree to remove the blog. Fifteen minutes later, after members of management consulted amongst themselves, the employee was terminated.

‘Unfair’ treatment

The union argued termination was not only unfair, but also procedurally flawed. It wanted her reinstated, possibly to another department. It said her union rep had been selected by the employer and she was not warned about the disciplinary nature of the meeting. Since the termination letter did not contain a reference to insubordination, that argument could not be used to dismiss the employee.

The union also argued the employee was ambushed at the disciplinary meeting when “a large pile of documents was dumped on her” and she was told to explain herself. It’s no wonder she was confused and her responses were “less than ideal,” it said.

The union asserted the employee had apologized to her immediate supervisor and her other attempts to say she was sorry –– by leaving two greeting cards in the office –– were subverted by her managers, who did not display the cards. Management was overstating the harm done as few colleagues knew about her blogs until management told them and there was no evidence client confidentiality had been breached, said the union. Finally, the employee’s punishment was harsher than that meted out to a co-worker who had also blogged and her long record of previously unblemished service should have mitigated the punishment.

Unapologetic response

The board found while the employer was not as clear about the purpose of the disciplinary meeting as she should have been, a union representative was present and should have challenged the employer.

“The union cannot have one of its representatives sit idly by and then call foul,” the board said.

On the argument that insubordination was not mentioned in the dismissal letter, the board agreed with the employer that it was only one of the factors leading to the dismissal.

On the merits of the case, the board was somewhat hampered by the fact blogs are a “relatively new phenomenon that have not attracted a great deal of arbitral attention to date,” with only one previous award on the subject. Nevertheless, the board found the postings about the employee’s co-workers and work environment provided more than enough reason for discharge.

“While the (employee) has a right to create personal blogs and is entitled to her opinions about the people with whom she works, publicly displaying those opinions may have consequences within an employment relationship,” the board said. “In expressing contempt for her managers, ridiculing her co-workers and denigrating administrative processes, (she) engaged in serious misconduct that irreparably severed the employment relationship, justifying discharge.”

Had the employee expressed regret over the effect her behaviour had on others rather than being sorry she lost her job, things might have turned out differently –– as they did for her co-worker who also wrote blogs criticizing the workplace but apologized to those whom she had offended and received a two-day suspension.

But the employee shut the door on any softening of the punishment by her behaviour during and after what turned out to be her dismissal interview — management had brought three disciplinary letters to the meeting ranging all the way up to termination. The board said there was little indication the employee understood why her blog was so offensive. She did not attempt to apologize personally to those she offended. The greeting cards, which said she regretted “this got so blown out of proportion” and her subsequent blog posting were “tepid apologies” at best. Even at the arbitration hearing she failed to acknowledge she had said some “truly awful things” about her colleagues and managers. The board did not accept her view that her descriptions were simply attempts at satire or caricature.

Transferring her to another part of the public service, as the union suggested, was not an option not only because the board felt it lacked jurisdiction to move her, but a majority of its members would not choose to do so even if they had the authority.

Although the union nominee dissented, the other two members of the board denied the grievance. The employee’s eight-year career in the civil service of Alberta was over.

For more information:

Government of Alberta and Alberta Union of Provincial Employees

(April 11, 2008), Allen Ponak — Chair (Alta. Arb. Bd.).

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com/clv.

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