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Carefree – and careless – youth

Younger workers may be more likely to make mistakes – but also more likely to learn from them

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Kids will be kids.

Young people are often faced with a lot of things going on in their life. Major changes are afoot, such as graduating from high school, going to university, moving out of their parents’ home, and emotional and physical issues. They also often experiment, gaining life experience and knowledge.

As the old saying goes, “If I knew then what I know now…”

How much should young people — adolescents and young adults in particular — be held responsible for mis-steps they make? Sometimes, you would think they should know better, but other times it could be chalked up to inexperience or peer pressure. Sometimes they’re going to do things that get them in trouble — with their parents, perhaps the law and possibly their employers. This is something to keep in mind for employers that employee a lot of young people.

The City of Toronto, like many municipalities, employees young people in seasonal positions in the summer. It’s an ideal situation for both sides, as the city has many seasonal positions as part of its services and facilities during the season that are only part-time, and many young people need temporary employment so they can earn money on their summer vacation.

Many of these seasonal positions have to do with city-owned pools and beaches, including lifeguards and maintenance workers. One particular worker worked for the city from the age of 14 as a wading pool attendant, then becoming a lifeguard and finally a “pool in-charge” during his university years.

Near the end of the summer in 2013, the employee attended a party with several other seasonal employees in the city aquatics department. Many were drinking, though the worker wasn’t. It was decided they would partake in what was considered an annual tradition for pool employees — break into a city pool late at night and go for a swim.

The worker drove a few people to a city pool, while many others walked because they were intoxicated. After failed attempts to use a key to get in, someone broke a glass door to gain entry — unbeknownst to the worker. They all went swimming and dove off the diving platforms in the darkened pool. The worker took three photos of himself and some friends and posted them on Instagram.

The city found out about the incident and launched an investigation. Another pool employee was approached and told her discipline would be less if she co-operated, so she reported on what happened. As part of the fallout, the worker was fired for acting contrary to safety rules and violating the city’s trust. The city also felt the posted photos on Instagram were harmful to its reputation.

An arbitrator agreed the worker showed poor judgment, but shouldn’t have been fired. While the worker participated in entering the pool and diving, he wasn’t intoxicated and wasn’t a major organizer of the incident. In fact, he had gone along reluctantly. In addition, the photos weren’t clear enough to show it was city employees at a city pool after hours.

The arbitrator also pointed out that termination by the city would preclude the young worker from ever being considered for a city job again. That was too harsh for what it chalked up to poor judgment by an otherwise good worker with eight years of service with the city. See See Toronto (City) and CUPE, Local 79 (Katsuras), Re, 2015 CarswellOnt 14401 (Ont. Arb.).

The arbitrator obviously thought the city’s decision to fire the worker wasn’t fair and too harsh. The city had legitimate concerns over the worker’s role in an unsafe activity that exposed the city to liability and public embarrassment. However, given the worker’s past reliability, it was unlikely he would repeat his misconduct — he probably learned from the experience and might turn out to be an even better employee in the future.

When a young employee screws up, it’s important she learns her lesson. But should she be given a second chance? By their very nature, young workers might even have the potential to learn more from discipline as opposed to dismissal.

© 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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