Fired because of secret shoppers

But disciplinary action reduced, reversed prior to arbitration

They may be shopping undercover in a store near you, lurking in aisles waiting to spot something out of the ordinary. When it comes to secret shopping, everything is kept under wraps and not even the employers who hire them know when they’ll make a guest appearance.

For nine employees at the Radisson Hotel Saskatoon a secret shopper visit meant firings and suspensions. Four Radisson employees were fired and five disciplined after secret shoppers reported poor performances. Some workers failed to add a coffee or milk to the shopper’s bill, going against company policy, which requires employees to make a new bill with the additional costs.

“It’s for the integrity of the business, to make sure transactions are being properly recorded. It’s an ongoing situation that has occurred in the hotel,” said Claude Marcotte, Radisson’s former general manager.

What happened at Radisson was entrapment according to David Durning, national representative of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) — the union representing the employees.

“The (secret shoppers) asked at the last minute for another coffee or milk, they wanted to see how the server would handle the bill. It was a real busy day and re-doing the whole bill takes a lot of time,” Durning said.

These employees were just called in and told they were fired or suspended, he said.

“That’s not the kind of action you normally take unless there’s some kind of gross misconduct.”

The union fought Radisson’s actions and the case went to mediation last month. All the outstanding grievances were resolved. Several workers got their jobs back, one suspension was reduced and the others decided not to return to work, after receiving a satisfactory settlement. (Soon after Canadian HR Reporter spoke with general manager Marcotte, he left Radisson Hotel.)

“I think they (Radisson) realized they might not have a strong case to take to arbitration,” said Durning.

Indeed, if this case went to arbitration, Radisson would probably be liable for its actions, said Peter Bergbusch, a partner at Balfour Moss Barristers and Solicitors in Saskatchewan. When an employee’s performance is questionable, the employer is usually required to give him a chance to correct it.

“They should be able to improve their performance before their competence is considered at such a level that they can be dismissed for cause,” he said. There was no indication there was a billing problem, and if there was it should have been clearly brought to the employee’s attention. Without that kind of record, this seems to be entirely trivial.

While it may not be written in legal terms, employers should be very cautious about the way they use secret shoppers. Durning said the case at Radisson should make employers think twice about using secret shoppers for disciplining employees.

Often times, companies will seek the help of a secret shopper to gauge the quality of customer service, among other things, at its various establishments. So, these shoppers show up unannounced, waiting to see that smile in 30 seconds or the “How can I help you?” greeting at a store entrance.

“Most of our clients come to us because they’re looking for ways to get an objective evaluation,” said Sandy Kancylarski, director of operations for Service Intelligence Inc., a Calgary-based secret shopping service. “They use the information to make changes to their training programs or focus on something specific across their multiple locations.”

What a secret shopper looks for depends on the employer’s requests, which could range anywhere from getting hot, crispy fries to having well swept floors. There are no limitations. Kancylarski said they do cater to the majority of client’s needs, but they also know when to draw the line.

“We’re aware of the federal and provincial human rights acts and are certainly careful in ensuring nothing illegal is attempted,” she said.

The company has several data inquiry checks to verify a client’s information is valid and accurate, and the proposals must not be directed at the termination of a targeted employee.

“We ask, ‘What are you going to use this information for?’ If it’s for punitive purposes, we won’t respond and that’s our choice as an organization,” Kancylarski said.

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