A straight-up employment relationship

Without trust and straightforwardness on both sides, somebody’s going to get hurt – be it just cause or wrongful dismissal

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It’s been said in this space before how important honesty is in the employment relationship. If an employer can’t trust an employee to perform her duties and not harm the business, there’s no point in continuing to employ her.

That’s why there have been  numerous cases where employees have been fired not necessarily for misconduct, but lying about it – and where dishonesty itself is misconduct providing just cause for dismissal. Without some degree of trust, the employment relationship can be irreparably damaged.

However, it works both ways. Employers expect employees to be straight with them, and employees have the right to expect employers to be straight and fair to them. A good employment relationship should have some trust on both sides, or else things could get sticky – especially if the employer decides to end the employment relationship.

A recent Saskatchewan arbitration case involved an employee of a home building centre who was building his own house. He went through his employer to get most of the building materials, which he would order at work and either take them home or have them delivered.

The employee needed two windows of a specific size for his home under construction. One of the company’s customers placed a large order with some extras, so the employee was told he could take two extras from that order rather than place an order of his own. The employee took two windows he saw outside the warehouse and marked them as “sold,” then told a supervisor to invoice them to his bill, as had been done for other materials he had purchased for the house. However, the supervisor was busy and forgot to invoice these windows.

On the day the windows were to be taken to the employee’s house, he was making other deliveries, so he showed other staff where to find the windows and to make the delivery.

Later, a manager noticed two windows were missing from another order. He knew the employee needed the same type of windows and mentioned the missing windows to him. The employee remarked about things going missing and joked about finding them on the Kijiji online markplace.

The manager was suspicious, so he looked into the missing windows. Naturally, he didn’t find any evidence of the employee being invoiced for the windows, since the supervisor had forgotten to do it. He learned of the delivery to the employee’s house, so he drove to the construction site and found the missing windows installed. He then contacted police and the employee was charged with possession of stolen property under $5,000. A week later, the company fired him for internal theft.

The arbitrator found the company had little reason to believe the employee stole the windows and it was all a mistake. The employee was under the impression he was being invoiced for the windows and he wasn’t even the one who took them from the employer’s property, as the delivery was made for him. The employee also did nothing to cover up what he was doing – he asked the supervisor to invoice the windows and instructed the delivery staff on what to do.

The arbitrator found that the company didn’t get the employee’s side of the story – had it done so, things could have been cleared up fairly easily. In addition, there was no evidence of any windows gone missing from any customer orders. In this case, the company rushed to judgment and wasn’t straight with its employee. As a result, it unjustly dismissed the employee and was ordered to reinstate him with compensation for loss of pay, benefits and seniority: see Prince Albert Co-Operative Assn., Ltd. and RWDSW, Local 496 (Snaith), Re, 2016 CarswellSask 282 (Sask. Arb.).

It’s a reasonable expectation that employees are straight with their employers, and reasonable for employees to expect the same. Just cause is difficult enough for employers to prove, and almost impossible if they aren’t up front with the employees when their job is on the line.

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