Suspension warranted for ‘failure of leadership’

The grievor had used two crude terms to refer to female colleagues. He was in a senior position. His first apology was equivocal, but the second was more complete. The arbitrator found that suspension and temporary demotion were appropriate punishments.

A Fire Captain grieved his reduced discipline after he was reinstated and his termination for a gender-based slur was reduced to a suspension and a six-month demotion.

C.H. had 33 years of discipline-free service as a firefighter when he was fired on March 4, 2011. C.H. made the rank of Fire Captain in 2005.

On March 2, 2011, C.H. was filling in for the day at Fire Station “A” to cover for the regular Captain who was absent.

Of the 1,300 firefighters employed by the municipality, only 30 were women. Three of those women firefighters were stationed at Fire Station “A”.

On the afternoon of March 2, C.H. responded to a routine emergency call. During the ride in the fire truck back to the station, C.H. asked why there were so many “gashes” at Fire Station A.

When Firefighter L asked C.H. what he meant, C.H. said, “Cunts, I mean cunts.”

“Forgot you were here”

C.H. offered an apology of sorts when he became aware that one of the station’s female firefighters was in the back seat of the truck. He reportedly said, “I’m sorry, I forgot you were here.” C.H. later reformulated the apology and expressed his regret at his mistaken understanding that the female firefighter was on another rig.

C.H. was fired. The Fire Chief determined that C.H. had failed to live up to leadership expectations and that he had undermined the fire department’s high-priority efforts to create an inclusive work environment in order to increase the number of female firefighters on the force.

C.H. prepared a written apology and the union grieved the termination. C.H. was reinstated. However, he was assessed a two-month suspension for the incident and busted to the rank of Firefighter 3 for six months.

The union grieved again, arguing that the discipline imposed was still too severe.

The union said many factors counted to mitigate the discipline in C.H.’s favour: C.H. apologized immediately and acknowledged he was wrong; the misconduct was an isolated incident in a 33-year, discipline-free career; C.H. was truly remorseful and had issued a written apology; and, the comments were not made before the public and there was no evidence that his comments had damaged the reputation of the department.

“Repugnant and demeaning”

The Arbitrator said that the fire department had just cause to impose both the suspension and the demotion.

The language C.H. used was obviously “repugnant” and “demeaning” towards women, the Arbitrator said. However, viewed within the context of that particular workplace and C.H.’s leadership role within it, the insults were also more destructive than simple, off hand, gender-based slurs.

“By referring to the female firefighters as ‘gash’ and ‘cunts,’ [C.H.] was sending a message to the crew he led on that day that it was acceptable to refer to their female colleagues using degrading and demeaning terms. As importantly, he sent the message to the crew that brought into the question the legitimacy of even having female firefighters. That message was entirely inappropriate. Given that Captains are to serve as role models and given the [fire department’s] objective of creating an inclusive working environment for women, the Grievor’s comments constitute a profound failure of leadership. Such conduct is deserving of a very serious disciplinary response.”

C.H.’s long service and his discipline-free record were acknowledged, though his initial verbal apologies were deemed to have missed the mark. Apologizing to someone because they were present to hear a slur isn’t much of an apology, the Arbitrator said.

C.H.’s subsequent written apology was judged to be sincere but that was not enough. Misconduct by someone in a supervisory position is a significant aggravating factor that justifies a more serious disciplinary response.

In any case, the Arbitrator said, an apology can only go so far. “While I have accepted the letter of apology as sincere, no apology, however sincere, can entirely mitigate the very significant damage caused by [C.H.’s] comments. In addition, in a way [C.H.] has already received ‘credit’ for his apology. It is obvious that the letter of apology played a key role in the decision by [the Deputy Fire Chief] to rescind the termination and substitute a suspension from employment and a temporary demotion.”

The grievance was dismissed.

Reference: City of Calgary and Calgary Fire Fighters Association. James T. Casey — Chair; David R. Laird and A. Julian Landry (dissenting) — Members. Sean McManus for the Association. Rebecca Pitts for the Employer. July 9, 2012. 18 pp.

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