Look out below: Employees who reach a breaking point

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

By now, many people have heard of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who seemed to have reached his breaking point at the end of a flight on which he was working.

While the plane approached the terminal after landing in New York, a passenger got up to get luggage from an overhead department, despite Slater’s request for him to remain seated. Slater argued with the passenger and the luggage fell from the compartment and hit Slater in the head. Slater demanded an apology but the passenger just cursed at him. Slater picked up the intercom, unleashed a tirade of profanity-laced insults, and then pulled the emergency exit lever. He grabbed a beer from the beverage cart and slid down the emergency slide. By the time JetBlue figured out what was going on, Slater had made it all the way home. He was later arrested and charged with criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.

Slater is now out on bail and has another court date in September. His lawyer also recently said Slater wants his job back. He worked as a flight attendant for 20 years and apparently was a good employee before this incident. But does any of that outweigh what JetBlue likely considers very serious misconduct? Should any bad behaviour by passengers be taken into account?

Employers have the right to expect a certain level of professionalism and conduct on the part of employees. In the airline industry, this is particularly important because of security and safety concerns. If a long-time employee with a spotless record suddenly cracks and endangers the health and safety of the workplace, is this grounds for summary dismissal? It’s harder in Canada to summarily dismiss employees, but it is possible if the misconduct is serious enough.

If this happened to a Canadian employer, would this kind of misconduct be enough? Or could it be considered the result of stress caused by verbal abuse and the physical altercation with the passenger, which might mitigate the misconduct? Could the employer trust the employee not to do it again?

Reaction to Slater’s actions has been mixed. Some have made him out to be a working-class hero who finally had enough of being subjected to verbal and physical abuse from passengers in trying to do his job. Others have ripped him for his lack of professionalism and disregard for safety. A JetBlue internal memo acquired by NBC News indicates the airline thinks it unlikely it will let Slater come back to work, even if there was a “precipitating incident,” due to the seriousness of his misconduct. Should he get another chance, or did he burn his bridges when he slid down that slide?

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 www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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