Refusing to accept blame can cost your job

Date: 2007
Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Publication: Metro

Employee fired for refusing to admit mistake but not the mistake itself

A serious error doesn’t necessarily justify discipline.  But refusing to accept blame can cost you your job.
Martha McGachie’s employment was characterized by a series of errors.  When the mistakes mounted, she finally wore out her welcome at the Victoria, B.C., Immigrant & Refugee Centre.
An employment counsellor of the Centre for nearly five years, McGachie drew the ire of her supervisor by disagreeing with him about how she should perform her job.  At first, McGachie’s probationary period was extended.  Following other mistakes that her supervisor characterized as “serious”, she was warned that further errors would cost her job.
The final straw for the Centre occurred when McGachie sent a document to the government agency funding its operations.  She did so without first seeking approval by her supervisor, which she knew was standard policy.  When the government agency reviewed the document, it realized that the Centre was providing services to some clients who were ineligible for funding.  The agency thus clarified its policy and the Centre was left unable to service a number of clients.
McGachie was then asked by her supervisor and the Centre’s director to acknowledge her mistake in writing.  McGachie responded in writing but, instead of admitting the error, she characterized their request as a “new term of employment tantamount to a probationary period”.  McGachie was fired shortly after and responded by suing for wrongful dismissal.
Recently, a British Columbia judge rejected the Centre’s argument that McGachie’s mistake was so serious that it warranted either her immediate dismissal by itself or as the culminating event in a series of earlier errors that she had been warned about.  However, the court found that McGachie’s dismissal was justified on the basis of her refusal to acknowledge the blame for the incident.
McGachie’s error did warrant some form of discipline and the requirement to acknowledge her mistake was a reasonable request, the court found.  McGachie’s refusal to accept blame was deemed insubordination and was ultimately what lost her her case.
This case contains valuable insight into the law of wrongful dismissal, for both employers and employees:

  • It is not open to an employee to simply refuse to obey a direction from a superior.  The decisive question is, however, whether or not the request was reasonable.  In this case, the court bluntly agreed that by directing McGachie to acknowledge her mistake in writing, the employer had acted sensibly.
  • A single mistake or even a series of consequential mistakes may not always convince the judge that the employee’s dismissal for cause is a necessary or proportional response.  The employer’s reaction to the error may sway the judge in one direction or another.
  • Employee misconduct is not considered in isolation.  The results in this case were influenced by McGachie’s employment history and, doubtless, the earlier mistakes that she had also made.