False accusation leads to real dismissal

Employee’s claims supervisor threatened him were false and in bad faith in light of co-workers’ reports that nothing of the sort happened

Employers must always take complaints of harassment and threats of violence in the workplace seriously. This means any such claims must be investigated thoroughly to determine the facts and mete out any appropriate discipline that may be required.

However, such complaints aren’t always true. And they can be damaging to the person being accused, regardless of the validity of the complaints, not to mention potentially damaging to the workplace environment if the result is strained relationships between employees. So if an employee makes a false complaint intentionally, that employee could be subject to discipline just as serious as that of someone guilty of such accusations – and that discipline could go as far as dismissal.

An Ontario worker’s dismissal for filing a false complaint against his supervisor and then calling his co-workers liars for participating in the investigation has been upheld by an arbitrator.

Fred Nwaulu was a material handler for Cooper Industries (Electrical), a manufacturer of electrical products in Mississauga, Ont. Nwaulu was hired in September 2002 and in 2012 became union chairperson for his bargaining unit.

Nwaulu worked as part of a four-person team of workers who filled customer orders for material such as bolted framing, cables and fasteners. At any one time, three workers picked the material – by hand, with a ‘reach truck,’ or a fork truck, depending on the size of the material – and one completed paperwork such as printing labels, packaging, and inventory counts. Workers rotated through these positions but often helped each other out as needed.

In 2012, Nwaulu began working for a supervisor on what was called the “B-Line.” Nwaulu initially got along with the supervisor, but over time he became more confrontational, especially regarding union issues. He often stopped working and told the supervisor he had to conduct union business. The supervisor also claimed other employees complained about Nwaulu, but he told them to contact human resources as he didn’t want to get involved unless it was serious.

Another source of friction with the supervisor was Nwaulu’s safety habits. Sometimes he dropped material or put it in the wrong location, and one time a strut fell of the fork truck Nwaulu was operating. The supervisor conducted an “on-the-spot” counselling session regarding the safe position of the forks but no formal discipline was given.

On Feb. 11, 2014, Nwaulu started his shift with the team he’d be working with much the same way most shifts began – with a review of the workload for the shift, the number of trucks expected to arrive, and a reminder of the need to wear safety equipment by the supervisor. The supervisor also walked around the area with the four employees to look for unsafe conditions or anything out of place.

The supervisor pointed out a loose strut that had been left in a spot where it could be a safety hazard. He didn’t identify anyone as responsible for the loose strut, just that it should be moved. However, Nwaulu became upset and went into a tirade, shouting at the supervisor. The supervisor asked the other employees if there were more safe places for the strut and they agreed, but Nwaulu denied there were alternatives and challenged the supervisor. The supervisor pointed at the door and told Nwaulu he could go back to work or “there’s the door.”

Nwaulu approached the supervisor, but when the two where close together, another employee stepped between them to defuse the situation. Soon after, the employees went to work.

The supervisor emailed the human resources manager to report the incident, saying Nwaulu was disruptive and insubordinate. He also mentioned Nwaulu’s job performance was “lackluster at best” and he was making an excuse by saying the supervisor was pushing him.

Worker claimed supervisor threatened him

Nwaulu filed a grievance the same day, alleging that the supervisor “threatened to beat me up in front of my peers.” Nwaulu claimed he felt afraid and uncomfortable at work because of the supervisor’s behaviour and thought the supervisor would try to get him out of the department because he disagreed with Nwaulu’s suggestion about safety issues.

The HR manager was out of the office but told the supervisor he would have a counselling session with Nwaulu when he returned. The HR manager was back on Feb. 24 and immediately began an investigation, including an interview with Nwaulu.

Nwaulu told the HR manager that the supervisor “came at (him) and had to be physically restrained” and also threatened to beat him up. He said the supervisor didn’t mention any names but he spoke to Nwaulu directly and Nwaulu took offense. In addition, Nwaulu said the supervisor told him he would get him out of the department and rushed him twice before the co-worker intervened.

The HR manager told Nwaulu to return to work while he investigated further and reminded him of the company’s zero-tolerance policy regarding retaliation, so he wouldn’t face consequences for raising his concerns. However, the HR manager also said false allegations were slanderous and would also not be tolerated. He gave Nwaulu a chance to retract his allegations, but Nwaulu stood by them.

The supervisor came to see the HR manager a couple of times during the investigation, as he considered the allegations to be slanderous. The HR manager said the investigation was purely fact-finding and the results would determine the next course of action.

The HR manager interviewed three of the four employees who were working with Nwaulu on Feb. 11. All three reported that the supervisor had pointed out the loose strut on the floor and it was hazardous, though he was speaking to the entire team, not anybody in particular. They said Nwaulu became argumentative and started speaking in a raised voice when the supervisor didn’t back down. They all agreed the supervisor made no threatening comments or gestures but Nwaulu approached him and stumbled without the supervisor touching him. One of the employees commented that Nwaulu was “overdramatic” when he stumbled.

The employees and the supervisor all reported that Nwaulu had a reputation for trying to cause trouble, including between co-workers.

The HR manager concluded that Nwaulu’s allegation that his supervisor threatened to physically harm him and picked on him was false and made in bad faith, which caused “unnecessary stress” to the supervisor and affected the productivity of the team of workers. He informed Nwaulu of his findings and he should return to work while appropriate discipline was determined. Nwaulu said he disagreed with the decision.

Worker didn’t like outcome of investigation

Some time after the incident, two of Nwaulu’s co-workers came to the HR manager upset. They said Nwaulu had called them liars and referred to one of them with a derogatory term. They both said they would not work in the plant until Nwaulu was gone.

Nwaulu agreed that he discussed with his co-workers what they had said in their interviews but said one of them approached him and he told them he didn’t want to talk about the case and they should leave him alone. He denied calling them liars or swearing at them and asserted they made false statements and were collaborating with management to get rid of him.

Nwaulu was sent home pending a decision on discipline and, on March 3, his employment was terminated for making a false and slanderous complaint against his supervisor and acting in bad faith with “calculated and malicious” intent. Nwaulu continued to insist he had done nothing wrong and grieved his dismissal.

The arbitrator pointed out that the reports of Nwaulu’s co-workers and the supervisor were all consistent and only Nwaulu’s differed significantly. The HR manager diligently interviewed all of them and there was no evidence why any of the other employees would lie about the altercation. Some of Nwaulu’s account didn’t make sense, either – such as why the supervisor would know Nwaulu was responsible for the mess when there had been a previous shift. It also didn’t make sense why the supervisor would suddenly rush Nwaulu, said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator found it was reasonable for the HR manager to determine Nwaulu’s complaint was false and at that point proper discipline had not been determined when the co-workers reported Nwaulu’s harassment of them following the investigation Again, it made no sense for the co-workers to lie, and Nwaulu agreed he did speak to them about their reports, said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator agreed that termination was appropriate for Nwaulu’s misconduct. Nwaulu made serious allegations and maintained them throughout the investigation and when given the opportunity to retract them. This confirmed the complaint was made with malicious intent and in bad faith. In addition, Nwaulu proceeded to harass his co-workers when things didn’t go his way, accosting and insulting them.

On top of his misconduct, Nwaulu showed no remorse, never apologized, and “maintained his position in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” said the arbitrator. The grievance was dismissed.

“(Nwaulu) cannot be returned to a workplace where such blatantly false allegations were made – and maintained – against his supervisor,” said the arbitrator. “(Nwaulu) cannot be returned to a workplace where he retaliated against fellow bargaining unit members who were blameless in their participation in the investigation.”

For more information see:

Cooper Industries (Electrical) Inc. and USW, Local 9042 (Nwaulu), Re, 2015 CarswellOnt 8747 (Ont. Arb.).

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