Best Buy fires sales manager for not being a whistle-blower

Court rules retailer did not have just cause when it fired a manager who was temporarily in charge of a department where a widespread breach of company policy was taking place

The Ontario Supreme Court of Justice has ruled a Best Buy store did not have just cause when it fired a manager who was temporarily in charge of a department where a widespread breach of company policy was taking place.

Arun Ron Bhasin was fired from his job as a department sales manager at a Best Buy store in April 2002. His termination letter said it was for “a flagrant breach of … policy and procedure as well as a breach of trust,” but did not contain any specifics.

Bhasin failed to reveal his knowledge of breaches of the store’s cell phone sales policy to a Best Buy investigator. (The company, by contractual agreement with suppliers, could sell only one un-activated cell phone per customer.)

At the time of the investigator’s visit, Bhasin was filling in for the vacationing manager of the communications department, which oversaw cell phone sales. As a result of the investigation Bhasin and eight other sales workers were fired.

In determining if Best Buy had cause to dismiss Bhasin, his actions need to be viewed in the context of the store’s cell phone sales climate, said the court.

Bhasin said the company’s primary focus was on achieving sales and that other policies were not enforced. “You could get away with murder, you were to make sales top priority,” he said. “Sometimes the regional manager would call and say to us we need to sell 500 phones this weekend.”

Workers were paid a higher commission for cell phones than some other products. This was “an open invitation for salespersons to circumvent the cell phone policy,” the court said. That eight workers were fired for flagrantly violating the policy should have told the investigator the store’s management might be condoning, and perhaps even encouraging, its violation, said the court.

Yet the investigator had not asked the store manager or the manager of the communications department anything about the breaches of policy.

The court noted that both those workers had “conveniently resigned” and were not called by Best Buy as witnesses in Bhasin’s case. The court drew an adverse inference from this and concluded they had known about, and condoned, the breaches.

Furthermore, one of the eight fired workers filed an action for wrongful dismissal. At his hearing he testified that, “management told employees to go out and sell as many cell phones as you can to whoever you can.” His settlement offer was accepted, said the court.

Bhasin had never sold a cell phone in his 10 years with the company. He knew the cell-phone policy was being breached, but it was a widespread knowledge held by everyone from the store manager to the salespeople. So, ultimately, Best Buy had fired Bhasin because he had failed to be a “whistle blower,” said the court. That’s not an adequate cause – summary dismissal is a severe punishment which requires truly serious misconduct to be justified.

The parties had agreed that if Bhasin was successful in his action he would receive $26,000 plus interest and costs, and that’s what the court awarded him.

For more information see:

Bhasin v. Best Buy Canada Ltd., 2005 CarswellOnt 7181 (Ont. S.C.J.).

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