Supervisor deleted for inappropriate emails

Higher standard of behaviour for employees in supervisory positions: Alberta court

An Alberta company had just cause to dismiss a supervisor who distributed inappropriate emails, the Alberta Court of Queens’ Bench has ruled.

Larry Wong was the chief electrician for Lantic, a sugar beet processing facility in Taber, Alta. He was hired in August 2002 and supervised nine employees in Lantic’s electrical and instrumentation shop. He was responsible for employee promotion, discipline, vacation, health and safety, and ensuring employees followed Lantic’s policies and procedures.

Wong signed an agreement that stated employees were liable for the sending or forwarding of inappropriate or confidential information by email and all e-mails on Lantic’s system were subject to monitoring. Wong also confirmed he had read and would follow the company’s code of business conduct, which encouraged employees to report improper practices, and its discrimination and harassment policy, which prohibited unwelcome comments about various subjects including sex.

When the computers in Wong’s department were connected to the Internet, Wong was advised by his supervisor that he should report employees looking at anything not work-related.

In January 2011, a safety training session was held for employees during which a video was shown depicting two women performing CPR on each other while dressed in lingerie. The safety co-ordinator said he had received the video from an employee in Wong’s shop, so the company examined their computers.

The investigation revealed the video had also been sent to Wong and at least one other electrical employee four months earlier. Wong’s email account was also found to contain messages that included pornographic images.

Wong admitted he had received the emails and he may have forwarded “a few of them.” He was placed on paid suspension pending further investigation, which revealed a number of employees had been sending and receiving emails that contained pornographic images and discriminatory messages. Wong had been sending inappropriate emails to external recipients as well, including business contacts, and he had images stored on his computer’s hard drive. In addition, the employees under his supervision had been sending more inappropriate emails than other departments.

Fourteen employees were given warning letters, one employee was suspended for five days and Wong was terminated for cause. Wong filed a claim for wrongful dismissal arguing he had an unblemished record and had never been told that “off-colour emails of a humorous and adult nature” would lead to his dismissal. He also claimed unfair treatment because he was the only employee fired and the company culture was open to such humour.

The court noted employers have the right to set the “ethical, professional and operational standards for their workplaces,” including limits on workplace computer use. When there are policies in place, a failure to follow those policies calls into question the trustworthiness of the employee, said the court. This is especially true for supervisors, who are held to a higher standard.

Claims about a company culture of permissiveness were insufficient to reduce this standard and the existence of one at Lantic was something Wong was trying to establish by his own distribution of inappropriate materials such as the CPR video, said the court.

The court found Lantic’s policies were clear and Wong had acknowledged his understanding of them. It was clear employees who violated them faced discipline. No other employee was dismissed, but no other employee was as heavily involved in the distribution of the emails as Wong was, said the court. If he was entitled to a warning, the reminder from his supervisor to monitor his employees’ use of computers was sufficient, said the court. The dismissal was upheld. See Wong v. Lantic Inc., 2012 CarswellAlta 2249 (Alta. Q.B.).

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