Worker sliced for threatening to ‘pie’ CEO (Legal view)

BC Ferries worker put up poster, offered reward and later claimed impairment

Putting up a poster and offering a reward for assaulting a company’s chief executive officer is a pretty good way to put an end to an employment relationship. That’s the lesson a British Columbia man learned after he did just that, and was fired, a move the B.C. Arbitration Board said was justified.

Art Farquharson worked at BC Ferries’ reservation centre in Victoria. He had been on the job for about 10 years when, on June 28, 2006, he posted a notice on a union bulletin board in the office with the headline “Pie the Guy!”

The “guy” in question was BC Ferries president and CEO David Hahn. Under the headline was typed text that offered a prize to the first person who hit Hahn in the face with a pie.

A manager saw the poster the following morning and was concerned about the message of a reward for doing harm to anyone, let alone the CEO. The poster was removed and the manager began meeting with employees to find out who was responsible.

The union was also concerned about the poster, since it had been posted on its bulletin board without pre-approval, which was the standard practice. It also felt the poster “put the union in a bad light.”

One employee said he had received an e-mail from Farquharson the day the poster went up that discussed “pieing the guy.” Two other employees were copied in on the e-mail. Farquharson was interviewed when he returned from a vacation on July 4.

He admitted he was the one who created the poster and put it up. He said he made it on the spur of the moment in a few minutes during his breaks.

Poster meant to be a joke

Farquharson said he intended the poster to be a joke to raise the spirits of the employees at the reservation centre. He felt he was an “unofficial supervisor” for the team and he should do something to improve morale and relieve the stress of his co-workers. He said he chose Hahn as the subject because he was well-known and didn’t think about the possibility it might not be taken as a joke.

Farquharson also claimed he hadn’t intended the notice to be widely circulated and his judgment was impaired that day because of Tylenol 3 he was taking for back pain. He said he didn’t have any memory of actually putting it up and regretted doing so. He told BC Ferries he wouldn’t do it again and apologized.

BC Ferries didn’t believe Farquharson’s claim he never intended to post the notice and that he was impaired. His manager said he hadn’t complained of any problems and didn’t appear to be impaired that day. Other employees who received the e-mails and were around him also indicated Farquharson had worked on the notice for at least two days. Also, when the company checked his computer for more e-mails, it found all e-mail had been deleted from his computer. He initially denied sending any e-mails but later admitted to doing so.

The investigation team concluded the notice was intentionally posted and was “an attempt to encourage and reward people for assaulting the CEO.” It saw Farquharson’s conduct as gross insubordination and dismissed him on July 11, 2006.

The board found it unlikely Farquharson’s judgment was impaired enough to post the notice unintentionally, considering the manager and another employee both said he seemed to be fine. An audit by BC Ferries also showed there was nothing different about the way he handled calls from the morning to the afternoon, when he claimed to be impaired.

The board found Farquharson’s attempts to get other employees in on the joke and the fact he posted it near the end of the day without signing it revealed his intention for the notice to “be both anonymous and widely publicized.” Posting on a union bulletin board made it reasonable to infer someone might take it seriously.

Similar incident in 2003

The board learned Farquharson had been involved in a similar incident on March 5, 2003, when he posted a notice on eight union bulletin boards that made disparaging remarks about the acting CEO of BC Ferries. The notice featured quotes falsely attributed to the CEO and another executive.

Farquharson claimed at the time he was trying to humour himself and his co-workers because he had been feeling depressed. He was suspended for two days and received a letter of discipline that said his conduct wasn’t appropriate and “will not be tolerated by the corporation.” The letter went on to say using the union bulletin board for such a notice was “unacceptable” and “future incidents of this nature will result in further discipline.”

The board found the 2003 and 2006 incidents were very similar in nature and Farquharson would have known a repeat tactic could result in serious discipline, if not dismissal. This made it difficult to accept his claim he was surprised at management’s reaction and didn’t think it would cause a problem.

“(Farquharson) knew, as a result of the 2003 incident, that such conduct was inappropriate and would not be tolerated, that a claim of humour would not be accepted and that similar behaviour might result in dismissal,” the board said.

Similar case merited 10-day suspension

The board considered another incident where an employee received a 10-day suspension for posting a painting that mocked B.C. premier Gordon Campbell and Hahn. However, it found Farquharson’s conduct was more serious because it included an “invitation to commit violence for a reward.” It also found the other employee had been honest and admitted his involvement, while Farquharson had not been forthcoming and changed his story. Also, the painting was a first offence for the other employee, while Farquharson had been disciplined before and knew the consequences.

The board also found Farquharson had been involved in other incidents where he had challenged his employer’s policies. In 2005, BC Ferries had sent him a letter about inappropriate use of the company’s e-mail system and Internet access, warning him of possible discipline if it happened again. Also in 2005, Farquharson wore a head scarf to work for a month, which was against the company’s dress code. He said it was under doctor’s orders, but he didn’t meet the company’s request for a note. BC Ferries gave him another letter warning of possible disciplinary action.

“The employer’s biggest concern was not (Farquharson’s) work, but his propensity to resist following the policies and procedures of the workplace,” the board said. It found dismissal was not excessive given his history of insubordination and the seriousness with which BC Ferries treated the invitation to violence in the notice he posted.

“The offence of insubordination, assessed in the context of (Farquharson’s) knowledge that what he was doing would be viewed most seriously by (BC Ferries), was compounded even more by such circumstances as his misuse of the Internet and his failure to make full disclosure,” the board said.

For more information see:
British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. v. B.C.F.M.W.U., 2007 CarswellBC 3225 (B.C. Arb. Bd.).

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at employment law from a business perspective. For more information, visit

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