Can’t handle the truth?

Not being straight with an employer can turn a minor disciplinary issue into a capital offence for employees

By Jeffrey R. Smith

A municipal maintenance worker is working a late shift in the garage looking after city buses. His shift is just about over and its pouring rain outside. He’s getting ready to leave but discovers one of the windshield wipers on his car is broken and any stores where he could buy a replacement are closed. The rain is coming down in buckets and, without that wiper, it’s going to be very difficult to see well enough to drive home. So the worker decides to borrow a wiper from a reserve bus parked in the garage.

However, the worker lends his car to his girlfriend and forgets all about the wiper. Some time later, a supervisor notices the wiper missing and finds it on the worker’s car. Grounds for dismissal?

Well, maybe not in normal circumstances. But in this case, the worker denied taking the wiper and told his employer he remembered buying it at a specific store. Despite irrefutable evidence he had the employer’s wiper on his car, he continued to deny it when questioned, until a union representative convinced him to admit it. The worker was fired.

It can be difficult for employers to prove just cause for dismissal. Most cases of misconduct usually have to be dealt with through discipline before dismissal becomes an option. However, sometimes the employee’s actions after the misconduct can provide just cause even if the misconduct itself does not. Lying and misdirection can introduce a larger concern of dishonesty that can produce distrust in an employee, which can damage the employment relationship.

There are other cases out there in addition to the one above where an employee has been fired, not necessarily for misconduct, but for the employee’s attempts to mislead the employer’s investigation into the misconduct. In circumstances such as the one above, is dismissal an appropriate response? If the misconduct itself isn’t that damaging to the employment relationship and might normally warrant some form of warning or discipline, does the employment relationship change that much when the employee isn’t initially straight with the employer about the situation?

It may depend on how important trust is to the employee’s job. If the employee is largely unsupervised and works with expensive equipment, maybe anything that damages the employer’s trust is just cause for dismissal. And that might be something for employees to keep in mind if they find themselves in this kind of situation. When in doubt, honesty is probably the best policy.

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

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