When a big cheese goes bad

How should an employer handle discipline of a managerial employee?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Employees in supervisory roles have a lot of responsibility. Not only must they manage the employees below them to make sure they’re meeting productivity targets and working well together, they have to set an example.

A manager or supervisor who doesn’t set and example for conduct and following company policy isn’t a very good one. But does this mean a manager or supervisor should face heavier discipline for misconduct than a lower-level employee?

A couple of years ago, an Alberta agricultural company was encouraging employees to learn CPR. In an information session, the company’s safety co-ordinator showed a video that depicted two women performing CPR on each other — but they were wearing lingerie. The safety co-ordinator resigned, but it turned out he received the video from the company’s chief electrician.

This prompted an investigation that revealed the chief electrician had been sending and receiving emails containing pornographic images and text to both internal and external recipients — contrary to the company’s code of conduct and computer policy, which the chief electrician had signed and agreed to follow.

Also, the employees under his supervision had been sending more inappropriate emails than any other department and he was involved in most of the email traffic. The fact he was involved in more of the emails than anyone else was a factor, but the fact more was expected of him as a supervisor played a significant role in the decision to dismiss him.

Several employees involved were given warning letters and one was suspended, but the chief electrician was the only one fired. He contested his dismissal, arguing it wasn’t fair he was the only one let go, but a court found supervisors were held to a higher standard than regular employees when it came to workplace conduct. The employer trusted him to set an example and ensure the employees under him followed company policies, and his failure to do so was a serious breach of the employment relationship, said the court.

It’s true supervisory employees have a high standard of conduct expected of them, and if they fail to meet that standard, it can affect the employer more than misconduct from a low-level employee by hurting employee morale or damaging the employer’s reputation.

Should discipline for misconduct automatically be greater for such employees for similar misconduct? If a company has a progressive discipline policy, can it skip a step for managers because the misconduct could be considered more serious? Termination is the most serious form of discipline — the capital punishment of employment — but should the threshold for termination for supervisors and managers be less than for low-level employees for serious misconduct, due to the greater chance of harm to the employer?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

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