BC Ferries slices worker for poster threatening to ‘pie’ CEO

Poster offered joke reward to ‘pie the guy’; employee had been disciplined for posting disparaging notices three years earlier

Pattern of insubordination leads to firing

Sometimes misconduct in the workplace can seem relatively minor, but when considered in the context of past actions can turn out to be just cause for dismissal.

BC Ferries employee Art Farquharson found out what may seem funny to one person may be taken quite seriously by others, especially in the workplace.

Farquharson may have thought a notice he created encouraging someone to hit CEO David Hahn with a pie was a joke, but his employer took the threat of violence, and his union the unauthorized use of its bulletin board, seriously.

Farquharson had received discipline and a warning for a similiar incident three years earlier which made him aware this kind of misconduct was frowned upon by BC Ferries. This case provides an example of an employer who, because it had clearly outlined unacceptable conduct and utilized progressive discipline in earlier incidents, was able to terminate an employee for just cause.

A British Columbia company was justified in firing an employee for putting up a poster poking fun at the CEO, the B.C. Arbitration Board has ruled.

Art Farquharson worked at BC Ferries’ reservation centre in Victoria for 10 years. On June 28, 2006, near the end of his last day before taking a few days off, Farquharson posted a notice on a union bulletin board in the office. The notice was on 8.5 by 11-inch paper and had the headline “Pie the Guy!” The poster referred to 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 president of the company. 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 his days off 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.

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 would find it funny. He 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 it 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 on June 28. 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.

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 at the time. The notice also 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 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.

The board considered another incident where an employee received a 10-day suspension for 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 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.).
Disciplinary letter sent to Art Farquharson for previous misconduct

The following is taken from a letter dated March 31, 2003, BC Ferries sent to Farquharson for a previous incident of insubordination:

“The notice of March 5 is sarcastic and uncomplimentary to the president and CEO. It was particularly mischievous by its use of the union logo which in my opinion was intended to lend it credibility.

“Your conduct is inappropriate and will not be tolerated by the corporation. Employees are expected to foster the development of a respectful working relationship within the corporation and to treat the managers with respect. Your explanation for your misconduct is not accepted. Attributing remarks to someone that were never made is a gross misrepresentation of the truth and is a serious breach of the duty to fidelity and loyalty. Further, the use of the union bulletin board, which has been supplied in good faith by the corporation for the posting of a notice of this nature is unacceptable.

“As a result, you will serve a two-day suspension and will be required to write a letter of apology to the president and CEO that is subject to my approval. Please note that future incidents of this nature will result in further discipline.”

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