Alberta worker fired after exaggerated and bad-faith bullying complaint

Investigation revealed worker’s account of events contradicted other witnesses
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/21/2018
Care Home
The Dickinsfield Centre is one of the care homes run by Capital Care Group in Edmonton. Google Street View

The dismissal of an Alberta worker for making bad-faith and false allegations of harassment and bullying has been upheld by an arbitration board.

The worker was a pharmacy technician at Capital Care Group, an Edmonton-based public continuing care organization. The worker was hired on a casual basis in March 2005 and promoted to a full-time position in February 2006.

She worked in Capital Care’s central pharmacy filling pharmaceutical orders for the company’s entire operations and had no discipline on her record.

Capital Care had a workplace violence and abuse policy that required all reports of violence and abuse to be “made in good faith and based on reasonable grounds.”

The policy further stated that employees who made false allegations or retaliated against someone who made a complaint would be “subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”

During the worker’s tenure, cliques formed in the central pharmacy that led to personal conflict between the groups. A new manager took over in 2012, but some employee groups supported him while others didn’t.

As a result, the conflicts increased and some employees acted disrespectfully towards the new manager. For example, the manager sometimes couldn’t express himself clearly, verbally or in emails, because English wasn’t his first language, and some employees gave him a hard time about it.

A new site administrator came to the central pharmacy in April 2014 with the objective of improving teamwork and changing the work environment. She held meetings with employees to further this objective.

After one meeting in July 2014, the pharmacy technician emailed the site administrator to express her concern that employees felt unsupported by management, especially the new manager.

The worker said the manager bullied people into doing things he wanted and made indirect threats against those who didn’t agree with him. She included emails from the manager that she considered offensive and emails she had sent him that had gone unanswered.

The administrator reviewed the emails and found the manager’s communications were appropriate and some of the worker’s replies were concerning.

She met with the worker and a union representative to discuss the worker’s perceptions and didn’t believe the worker felt threatened by the manager, just that she didn’t like his direction and management style.

Problems with employee displeasure and contempt continued and the administrator organized a respect-in-the-workplace workshop in 2016 for all managers, supervisors and staff. Following the workshop, the worker said it was inappropriate for management to sit in on the session so she was encouraged to put her concerns in writing.

Worker ups the ante

However, the worker took the opportunity to revisit the concerns from her original complaint regarding the manager’s emails and perceived bullying. When told her concerns would be taken to higher management, the worker expanded her complaint to say she had felt “very threatened” by the manager in a January 2016 meeting because he was angry and yelling at her.

She also said she was “attacked” by the manager and he bullied her “a lot,” but neither she nor anyone else would say anything to defy him because “he threatens us into silence.”

Capital Care then received complaints about the manager from another employee who worked closely with the worker and had received contact information for the complaint. The worker acknowledged they had both been spoken to about “excessive chatting” and felt they were inappropriately singled out.

Capital Care hired an independent investigator to look into the matter. The investigator interviewed 29 different people over one month, including the worker and the manager who was the subject of the complaint.

In the worker’s interview, she further expanded her complaint, alleging that the manager had physically threatened her in the January meeting and she was afraid of being fired as well as being hit by him. She also said she was worried the manager would find out where she lived.

The investigator learned that at the January 2016 meeting, the worker had been concerned about insufficient training time for new staff. The manager had been frustrated as the matter had been discussed before and, though he talked quickly and said he was disappointed in the worker, he denied raising his voice.

Both the manager and another staff member said the tone of the meeting was calm, with no aggression.

Worker lacked credibility

The investigator found the worker lacked credibility, as her statements were inconsistent with those of others interviewed, she came up with new aspects of her complaint that she hadn’t mentioned before, her descriptions of the manager’s conduct seemed “exaggerated and inflated” — especially for the January meeting where her account differed wildly from those of the others present — she didn’t distinguish between what she had seen and what she had heard from someone else, she made speculations as if they were factual, and some of her statements “lacked the ring of truth given the statements of other employees interviewed.”

In addition, another employee said she heard the worker say she hated the manager, though the worker denied using any language associated with hatred. The investigator’s March 2016 report concluded the worker’s allegations had no merit and no workplace violence or bullying had occurred.

Capital Care terminated the worker’s employment on April 7, 2016, for breaching its workplace violence policy by making false and exaggerated allegations of harassment, intimidation and bullying against the manager, which violated its trust in her.

The union grieved the dismissal, arguing the worker believed she was treated unfairly and inappropriately and her complaint was a matter of perception, not bad faith.

The arbitration board found that the investigation and resulting report were timely, as it was all done within a month of the worker’s complaint. The scope of the investigation was also reasonable, given the number of people interviewed.

The board agreed with the investigator’s findings on the worker’s credibility. It was clear to the board the worker “lacks credibility and she deliberately embellished and exaggerated her allegations for the purpose of causing harm to the manager.”

The board determined the worker acted in bad faith when she made her complaint and her motivations were geared towards harming a manager she simply didn’t like. This provided just cause for dismissal, said the board, in dismissing the grievance and upholding the dismissal.

For more information, see:

HSAA and Capital Care Group Inc., Re, 2018 CarswellAlta 2575 (Alta. Arb.).

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today. For more, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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