Discipline Warranted for Failure to Follow Instructions

Choosing to first adjust a malfunctioning machine and then repair the defective product that it was producing contrary to a supervisor’s direct order to address the problem in the reverse order, a worker in a meat processing operation was disciplined for misconduct.

An eight-year employee in the company’s “continuous wiener operation,” G.S. operated the “Frankomatic” machine, which injects meat emulsion into casings that are then twisted to make sausage links. While the machine is fully automated, it is the operator’s job to monitor the machine and attach the strands of wieners it produces to sticks, which are then put onto a conveyor and transported to the smokehouse for finishing.

Beginning in October 2008, the company began to take action to address quality control problems in wiener production. Re-training sessions were conducted with employees to clarify expectations and procedures with respect to dealing with defective strands of wieners. The key priority was to repair the problem wieners before they went into the smokehouse.

Idiosyncratic “Frankomatic”

On December 3, 2008, G.S. was assigned to produce small gauge wieners on a Frankomatic that was known to be finicky. Because of the number of variables that may affect production — from the quality of the casings to the idiosyncrasies of particular machines and the gauge of wiener being produced — problems were common.

When G.S.’s machine began to produce sub-standard wieners, he first discarded the resulting waste in a bin and then put a damaged stick of wieners on the conveyor thinking that he could shut down the Frankomatic, make a necessary adjustment and then return to the damaged wieners and repair them before they went into the smokehouse.

However, arriving on the scene just in time to witness G.S. putting the defective wieners on the conveyor, a supervisor intervened and ordered G.S. to repair the wieners. While G.S. signaled his assent, he did not move immediately to repair the wieners, which prompted the Supervisor to step in and make the repairs himself. Two days later G.S. was assessed a “step” on the ladder of progressive discipline and a written warning for misconduct was attached to his file.

The union grieved. There was no misconduct or insubordination, the union said. G.S. was faced with a dilemma and he made a judgment call. At most, G.S. made a mistake and should not be disciplined.

The Arbitrator disagreed. It is understood that employees will make mistakes. It also accepted that employees may make mistakes that do not involve misconduct and that should not attract discipline. Citing Re DeHavilland Aircraft of Canada (1970), the Arbitrator noted that “to substantiate any disciplinary action,” the employer must establish “not only a failure to meet reasonable standards but also some degree of culpable behaviour on the part of the employee which gives rise to this failure.”

Sub-standard wieners

G.S. knew the machine had produced a string of sub-standards wieners. He also knew that the wieners were to be repaired before entering the smokehouse. While he was not responsible for creating the sub-standard wieners, he was responsible for addressing the problem in line with the priorities identified by the Company.

G.S. could have addressed the problem immediately or a minute or two later when directly ordered by his supervisor to do so. “Instead, [G.S.] disregarded what he had been told by his Manager moments before; he followed his own notion of what was important …” the Arbitrator said.

This was not a case where G.S. was alone, unsupervised and uncertain of what to do, the Arbitrator said. “[T]he Production Manager was on the scene; he told [G.S.] what to do; and there is no good reason why [G.S.] did not simply do what he was told … [C]ompliance would have taken only a few seconds.”

The Arbitrator accepted that G.S. was anxious and a little “rattled” by the supervisor’s intervention. However, “[O]n the evidence before me, there is no doubt that there was a clear and specific direction that [G.S.] heard and understood but chose to ignore … In all the circumstances, therefore, I find that there was a degree of “culpability” in G.S.’s behaviour and in his disregard of his Supervisor’s instructions — an incident of ‘minor misconduct,’ which was more in the nature of laxity or carelessness than outright defiance. It was a minor neglect of duty — a matter of job performance — rather than serious insubordination; and, as it turned out, that is the way the Company treated it.”

The grievance was dismissed.

Reference: Schneider Employees’ Assn. and J.M. Schneider Inc. R.O. MacDowell — Sole Arbitrator. Jeffrey Andrew for the Union and D.S. Shields for the Employer. May 22, 2010. 19 pp.

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