Prof sent out of office for out-of-office reply

Professor refused to use her college e-mail address after college read colleague's e-mail containing union communication

This edition of You Make the Call features a fight over a college professor’s out of office message on her college e-mail account.

Paddy Musson was a professor at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., as well as president of the union. Musson became reluctant to use the college’s e-mail system after the e-mails of a union member, including messages to the union, were read during an investigation in 2004. The college’s computer use policy specified it owned all information stored in its computer systems and it could monitor computer use.

Musson put an out-of-office reply message on her college e-mail account in November 2004 that invited the sender to use her union e-mail because of security concerns. The faculty dean told her the message didn’t follow guidelines for out-of-office messages. Musson replied she had a duty to warn union members the college e-mail system wasn’t secure.

The dean then sent a memorandum confirming Musson was obligated to use the college e-mail system for college business. He gave her a deadline to change the message, but Musson made only small modifications.

The dean told Musson the message was unprofessional and the out-of-office reply should only be used when she was actually away, not just to forward to her other e-mail. Further e-mail exchanges followed over the next several months in which Musson changed the message but it still asked people to avoid e-mailing her at her union address because management could read it.

On Nov. 10, 2006, the dean told Musson if she didn’t change her out-of-office reply to the recommended wording, she would be subject to disciplinary action. Musson continued to defend her message, saying union members should be warned the college could read e-mails on its system. She said she would comply if the college could guarantee it would only access e-mails if there was cause.

The dean felt the wording was still inappropriate and suggested another alteration. Musson then changed her message to read “it is with the strongest urging that I ask you not to leave messages for me at this e-mail address. I would like to explain but I have been directed by the college under threat of discipline not to reveal the reason.”

On Nov. 29, 2006, the dean told Musson she was misusing the out-of-office reply to “broadcast what you allege to be the college’s behaviour regarding the reading of e-mails.” He demanded she use the feature only when away and with the recommended wording.

Musson refused to comply and accused the dean of harassing her. The dean finally said her refusal to comply with his directives was insubordination and he suspended her for three days without pay.

You Make the Call

Should Musson have been suspended for repeatedly refusing to change her out-of-office reply?
Should Musson have been given more leeway with the message?

If you said Musson should have been given more leeway before discipline was imposed, you’re right. The Ontario Arbitration Board found her concern for the privacy of union members was legitimate but didn’t justify “an indefinite resistance to the college’s directives on a matter that fell within the legitimate exercise of its management rights.” However, most of the dispute involved e-mails after one face-to-face meeting. Even though the dean warned on Nov. 10 there would be disciplinary action, the board found he continued to discuss the matter and suggested new wordings without repeating the warning.

“It was reasonable for (Musson) to assume the college wished to continue the dialogue and had backed away from its earlier disciplinary warning,” the board said.

The board ordered the college to remove the suspension from Musson’s record and pay her lost wages for the three days. However, one dissenting board member found the warning of disciplinary action was clear and didn’t need to be repeated, especially since Musson was an experienced union official familiar with labour relations matters. See Fanshawe College v. O.P.S.E.U., 2008 CarswellOnt 8484 (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

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