Helicopter mechanic grounded by employer’s over-reaction

Tense encounter during client representative's audit of facility didn’t cause harm to employer and didn’t warrant dismissal: Court

A British Columbia company must pay a former employee almost $30,000 for dismissing him without cause after he was terse with a potential customer but no harm was done, the British Columbia Supreme Court has ruled.

D’Arcy Saliken, 54, was a helicopter mechanic for 21 years who worked for Canadian Heli Structures. In August 2013, the company was acquired by Alpine Aerotech, a supplier of helicopter support and aircraft maintenance services based in Kelowna, B.C. Saliken worked at the company’s facility in Abbotsford, B.C.

Alpine Aerotech policy, which was outlined in the employee handbook, stated that employees were expected to accept responsibility for their conduct and “to be accountable for their actions on the job site.”

In January 2015, Saliken requested more training on a particular model of helicopter. He was granted a three-week training program at the plant in Texas that manufactured the model. As part of the deal, Saliken agreed to sign a training bond in which Alpine Aerotech would cover the cost of the training as long as Saliken continued to work for it for one year after completion. If he failed to pass, resigned in less than one  year or became unsuitable to work for Alpine Aerotech, he would have to repay a portion of the training cost depending on how long he worked after the training.

Saliken successfully completed the training and went back to Alpine Aerotech with no intention to leave. He had no disciplinary issues on his record and the company didn’t indicate it had any problems with his performance.

In April 2015, a potential client of Alpine Aerotech conducted audits of the company’s two facilities to ensure it had the necessary expertise and equipment for the maintenance and repair of its helicopters. The client’s representative audited the Abbotsford facility on April 8. Saliken and other employees were notified of the audit but were not given any further instructions.

Tense encounter during audit of facilities

The representative toured the Abbotsford facility with the shop manager and a company quality control manager. Saliken was helping work on a set of levers in the shop when they first passed by him to visit the other mechanic in the shop. They returned to where Saliken was and asked him what he was doing. The client representative asked Saliken where his maintenance manuals were and Saliken replied that they were on the computer — daily updates were usually issued to manuals so it was easier to use online ones than print manuals.

The client representative asked to see a specific tool noted on the page displayed on the computer screen — which didn’t happen to pertain to the what Saliken was doing at the time — and Saliken explained the tool wasn’t needed for that work. The representative continued to ask where the tool was and Saliken became frustrated. He pointed to a tool wall where the calibrated tools were kept and said the tool was there “somewhere.” They weren’t labelled, so Saliken couldn’t point out the specific tool. The other mechanic walked over and offered to show the representative where the tool was.

They returned to Saliken’s work bench after finding the tool and the representative asked Saliken what was in two unlabelled bottles. He stated that they should be labelled, so Saliken tossed the bottles — one with oil and the other Windex — into the garbage.

The representative then questioned Saliken about an uncalibrated depth gauge on his work bench. Saliken explained that he had just bought it and was using it for a reference to compare with the company’s depth gauge. He knew all final measurements had to be made with a properly calibrated depth gauge, but the representative seemed upset he was using a non-calibrated gauge at all. Saliken responded by saying “I guess this is garbage too” and tossed the gauge in the garbage.

Saliken and the other mechanic later described the atmosphere in the shop as “tense” but thought overall the audit went well. Saliken admitted he didn’t act appropriately, but didn’t think he had become upset. The other mechanic felt Saliken became annoyed by the representative’s questions but it was understandable because management had told them they wouldn't be dealing with the client representative.

After the audit, the client representative mentioned Saliken’s use of the non-calibrated gauge but was generally satisfied with things. He said he was surprised Saliken threw the gauge and bottles in the garbage, but he didn’t seem overly concerned.

Employer worried about harm to customer relationship

The shop manager, however, was upset with Saliken’s behaviour because it might have created a negative perception of the company with a potential major client. When the president of Alpine Aerotech heard of the incident, he apologized by email to the representative and assured him he would address it immediately. He then informed the head of HR that he wanted Saliken terminated for cause that day.

Shortly thereafter, the client representative responded to say he was fine with Saliken’s actions as he understood not everyone enjoys being audited. He also said “As long as you can ensure that he will perform the work per the manual, he can throw all of his belongings that he wants in my opinion.”

The next day, April 9, the shop manager passed along comments from Saliken that he wouldn’t be working on any “effing Erickson aircraft.” The president was even more concerned about Saliken hurting the company’s business with the new client, so he made it clear he wanted Saliken gone.

The head of HR prepared the termination documents and passed them to the company accountant, who handled HR issues in the Abbotsford facility. That afternoon, the shop manager informed Saliken he was being terminated and brought him to his office, where he met with the company accountant. The manager told Saliken he needed to read and sign the paperwork before he went home, though the termination letter stated 3 p.m. the next day.

The termination letter stated Saliken was being fired for inappropriate actions towards the client representative. Because he was being terminated for cause, no notice or pay in lieu of was being provided. However, the company offered to waive his training bond, which it claimed was worth $8,787.

The letter also indicated he must sign a liability waiver in order to have the training bond forgiven.

Saliken read the documents but claimed he didn’t understand them. No one explained them to him and, though he disagreed with his termination, he signed them. He later sued for wrongful dismissal damages, seeking six months’ salary in lieu of notice.

The court found that while Saliken over-reacted during the confrontation with the client representative, it wasn’t just cause for dismissal.

Saliken should have acted more professionally, but the company didn’t prepare him for the encounter with the client representative, leading to extra pressure on him and frustration. In addition, the decision to terminate seemed to have come from the reaction and embarrassment of the shop manager and his resulting account of the incident to the president, not from any real harm to the company. In fact, the client representative shrugged off the incident and seemed to think it was understandable under the circumstances, said the court. Overall, the audit went well.

The court found Saliken’s behaviour warranted discipline, but since he had a clean disciplinary record and the misconduct was relatively mild, dismissal was too harsh.

The court also found Saliken was put in an unfair situation at the termination meeting and was under duress when he signed the waiver; nor was he given an opportunity to seek legal advice. In addition, the documents were misleading in implying he would be required to pay the full training bond if he didn’t sign the waiver. While it was made to seem forgiveness of the training bond was consideration for signing the release, in reality there was no consideration because there was no cause for dismissal, said the court.

The court agreed that Saliken was entitled to six months’ pay in lieu of notice minus part-time earnings Saliken made during that time period. Alpine Aerotech was ordered to pay Saliken $28,985 in damages plus interest.

For more information see:

• Saliken v. Alpine Aerotech Limited Partnership, 2016 CarswellBC 1312 (B.C. S.C.).

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