Rumoured relationship with student led to conflict-of-interest concerns
This instalment of You Make the Call features an employee who was fired because of a perceived conflict of interest from a personal relationship.
Fabian Sparvier was the education co-ordinator for the Saik’uz first nation near Vanderhoof, B.C. His job included overseeing educational initiatives for the band’s young people.
In late April and early May 2009, Sparvier organized a field trip for secondary students to a college. After the trip, the band manager learned a few post-secondary students who weren’t on the official list of names had gone on the trip as well. Though it turned out the post-secondary students had arranged their own trip, the daughter of a band councillor plus another student told the band manager Sparvier had spent a lot of time with one of the unannounced additions, a 21-year-old college student. The younger students reported Sparvier was seen kissing and hugging the young woman, and one night was in her room. There had previously been a rumour in the village that the two were in a relationship, despite the fact Sparvier was married. Another chaperone on the trip said she had seen the two of them together but not anything inappropriate.
Later in May, the same young woman was awarded a contract to do inventory work in the community library and language institute. One of her relatives was also hired for a summer work program, though it was supposed to be for returning post-secondary students and he had just graduated high school. It was believed by some in the band council that Sparvier had pushed for both to be hired, which was a conflict of interest if he was involved with the young woman. Sparvier also didn’t run the relative’s hiring past the band manager, which was normal practice.
The band council asked the manager to investigate what happened on the trip, so the manager met with Sparvier and told him there were concerns about his conduct. Sparvier denied he was involved with the young woman and refused to answer any further questions without legal representation. The manager told him there would be an inquiry into his potential breach of trust.
The band decided to terminate Sparvier’s employment on Aug. 25, 2009, for inappropriate conduct on the field trip, abuse of authority in the hirings and a failure to co-operate with the investigation.
You Make the Call
Was Sparvier’s conduct inappropriate enough to warrant dismissal?
Was dismissal too much?
If you said the dismissal was too much, you’re right. The arbitrator found though the band had concerns and heard second-hand reports from a couple of the secondary students, it didn’t directly ask Sparvier about it until a month later and didn’t talk to any of the post-secondary students who tagged along on how they came to be there. The only reports of inappropriate behaviour were from the younger students and these were not substantiated by the other chaperone.
“The employer wrongly accepted unsubstantiated rumour and innuendo as fact and proceeded on that basis,” said the arbitrator.
Since there was no evidence Sparvier was actually involved with the young woman, the arbitrator also found there was no basis for the belief there was a conflict of interest in the hirings.
The arbitrator also found Sparvier didn’t refuse to co-operate in the investigation, but rather only refused to answer questions without legal representation. Considering the allegations were thrust upon him without much notice, the arbitrator said this was justified.
The arbitrator found reinstatement would not be appropriate because the employer’s pursuit of unfounded rumours likely soured the employment relationship beyond repair. As a result, the band was ordered to pay Sparvier his lost wages since his dismissal plus six months’ severance pay. The band was also ordered to publish public notice that his dismissal was without cause and a letter of positive reference to off-set the damage to his reputation. See Saik’uz First Nation v. Sparvier, 2010 CarswellNat 1014 (Can. Arb. Bd.).