Employer had cause to fire abusive employee: court

Worker's insults and profanity found to be excessive despite rough, 'masculine' environment at work

A British Columbia company had just cause to fire an employee for disrespectful and verbally abusive behavior, the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled.

David Rysstad worked for Dependable Turbines Ltd. of Surrey, B.C., for more than 10 years as a mechanical design technician. Dependable Turbines is a small company which builds and sells hydroelectric turbines.

In September 2001, the company signed two large contracts for turbines which put a strain on its resources. The employees met with Dependable Turbines’ owner, Robert Prior, to discuss their compensation for these projects. Prior agreed to increase their wages, though he disagreed with Rysstad on whether he would definitely index their wages to the cost of living each year or only if the company could afford it.

In 2002, Dependable Turbines relocated into a new building. Rysstad disagreed with the move. Around the same time as the move, Prior’s management style changed from hands-off to closely monitoring employees in their work.

The projects were keeping the company’s staff very busy when Rysstad took stress leave on Oct. 18, 2002, through the end of the year. His mother died on Jan. 3, 2003, and he took further leave until Jan. 21.

Prior testified the quality of Rysstad’s work was deteriorating. However, on Apr. 29, 2003, after working long hours to meet the project deadlines, Rysstad gave a letter to Prior requesting his and another employee’s wages be indexed to the cost of living increase. He followed it up several times after that and became increasingly irritated with Prior’s lack of an answer. On one day in May 2003, Rysstad’s conduct in bringing up the indexing issue upset Prior to the point where he left work for the day.

On May 6, 2003, Prior took a concealed tape recorder into a room where Rysstad was eating his lunch. Prior told Rysstad eating in the computer room wasn’t allowed. Rysstad responded by calling Prior a liar, used a vulgar name and said Prior was an incompetent employer. Rysstad was immediately fired.

Rysstad sued for wrongful dismissal, saying Prior’s change in management style and his failure to respond to the requests for wage indexing caused animosity, not just with Rysstad but the other employees as well. He also argued the work environment at Dependable Turbines was a “masculine environment” where coarse language and profanity was normal. The court ruled these were not excuses for Rysstad’s treatment of Prior. It found Rysstad was the “conversational aggressor” and his insults on May 6 and a few days before which led to Prior leaving work were beyond the usual rough talk in the work environment.

“It is obvious the insults are seriously meant,” the court said. “Rysstad was likely verbally abusive to Prior on both occasions.”

The court ruled Dependable Turbines had just cause to fire Rysstad for his behaviour and treatment of Prior, his boss.

“There are many ways to bring an employment relationship to an end,” the court said. “Rysstad discovered one of them.” See Rysstad v. Dependable Turbines Ltd., 2007 CarswellBC 689 (B.C. S.C.).

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