Dishonesty is a question of degree

White lies may not be enough to fire an employee

Dishonesty may no longer be a sufficient reason to fire someone. A recent judgment from the Supreme Court of Canada says that employers must consider lies in context before dismissing workers.

The Supreme Court considered for the first time the question of whether or not any lie justifies immediate dismissal in McKinley v. BC Tel. The issue had been raised at the provincial level and in the U.K. before, with mixed verdicts.

In McKinley, the British Columbia Supreme Court determined that dishonesty was a question of degree: a lie had to be serious enough to undermine the employment relationship to warrant dismissal. But B.C.’s Court of Appeal reached the opposite conclusion, saying that any lie was reason enough to dismiss.

The Supreme Court found that McKinley had certainly not been as forthcoming as he could have been regarding his medical condition. McKinley told BC Tel that his doctor had advised him to take a less stressful job, given his high blood pressure. In fact, his doctor told McKinley that he could resume his former stressful job provided he took certain medication. BC Tel was looking for another position within the organization for him. It later fired McKinley, on the grounds that his untruth regarding the state of his health warranted his dismissal.

The Supreme Court said that, assuming the employer had proof of dishonesty, it should consider first whether the worker’s dishonesty was a serious breach of trust – like fraud or theft. If so, that could justify immediate dismissal. If not, then the employer should determine whether the dishonesty was an isolated incident. Even minor infractions, if repeated and brought to the employee’s attention, can add up to a good reason to fire the worker.

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