Gun threat not serious, but lying about it was

Employer didn’t consider employee’s gun comment serious, but employee denied making it

A British Columbia company had just cause in firing an employee for making a threat even though the company didn’t take the threat too seriously, an arbitrator has ruled.

Overwaitea Food Group, an operator of food chain stores based in Langley, B.C., had an employee at one of its stores who started working in 1980. Between 2001 and 2009, the employee was disciplined for various misconduct, including a verbal warning for using profanity and acting aggressively towards a co-work, a three-day suspension for insubordination towards her assistant manager, a one-day suspension for swearing at the assistant manager, and a written warning for not showing up to work. The operations manager gave the employee positive performance evaluations, though she was aware the employee was prone to angry outbursts.

In April 2010, the employee had medical issues which required accommodation. As a result, she worked mainly in price changing and not at a checkstand. A co-worker who was a friend of the employee was also being accommodated for a medical issue.

In May 2012, Overwaitea found it necessary to change the co-worker’s accommodation, but couldn’t do it at the existing store. The company’s solution was to transfer her to another store. This upset the employee, both out of concern for her friend and for her own sake. The employee was also worried about how her hours would be affected by a new effective date of the store’s advertisements.

Confrontation with assistant manager

On June 8, 2012, the employee asked the operations manager about the new hours once the advertisement change went through, but the operations manager said she wouldn’t know until the next schedule was done. The employee responded by saying, “I don’t believe you guys are stupid enough not to have looked at it already” and then used a profanity.

The employee went on to say she was upset with her co-worker’s transfer and she wanted more notice if her accommodation or her hours were also changed so she could get more information from her doctor. She finished by telling the operations manager that “if not 40 hours I will find (her boyfriend’s) gun and come into the store.” Her boyfriend was an RCMP officer.

The assistant manager reported feeling unsettled by the exchange and discussed it with the store manager later in the day. She worked with the employee the next day, claiming she wasn’t concerned about safety because the new schedule wasn’t posted yet and there was nothing to trigger the employee to act on the threat.

In an interview around midday on June 13, 2010, the exchange was discussed with the employee, but she denied making the comment about the gun and claimed she was calm during the conversation. She admitted she sometimes talked bluntly and didn’t always think before speaking and if she did make the comment, she would have admitted to it. She was asked a total of four times, but denied it each time.

On June 19, 2012, Overwaitea terminated the employee’s employment for “inappropriate workplace conduct and threat of violence.” The company said this comment raised “great concern for the safety of (the employee), our team members and our customers.”

The union grieved the dismissal, arguing the employee didn’t intend to make a threat and if she did make the comment, it wasn’t credible because the managers knew she was prone to blurting out things without thinking.

The arbitrator found that the assistant manager had no reason to lie about the comment and the employee wasn’t always a calm person — as evidenced by her past discipline and her own admission. Both the employee and the assistant manager had similar accounts of the conversation, except for the gun comment, and the assistant manager made notes about it afterwards. It was likely that the employee did make the threat but insisted on denying she did so, said the arbitrator.

However, the arbitrator noted that while the employee made the threat, it didn’t seem as if Overwaitea took it very seriously. The employee finished her shift that day and the assistant manager continued to work with her the next day, as well. It wasn’t until a few days later that they had a meeting with the employee to discuss it. The company also didn’t take any measures to protect the safety of its staff and customers.

Though management claimed they didn’t act immediately because there was no new schedule to trigger the threat, the arbitrator noted this approach assumed the employee, who uttered an irrational act, would act rationally. The arbitrator found that this indicated that while the threat was made, Overwaitea didn’t take it as “an extremely serious threat.”

The arbitrator noted that the fact the company didn’t take the employee’s comments as a serious threat, could have warranted reinstatement for the employee. However, the employee continued to deny it multiple times and even insisted that she remained calm when she was known and had been disciplined for aggressive and angry misconduct. Because she wasn’t forthright with the company, the arbitrator found the employment relationship was irreparable and dismissal was appropriate.

For more information see:

Overwaitea Food Group and UFCW, Local 1518 (FS Grievance), Re, 2012 CarswellBC 2734 (B.C. Arb. Bd.).

Latest stories