Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Are you angry with your company or your boss? Be careful not to confuse freedom of speech with freedom from workplace consequences because, as a Canadian court recently found, gossip can be harmful to your career.
Upset with her perceived mistreatment at work, Deborah Lee Dilg spoke to her co-workers to criticize her boss. Dilg, a dental assistant at Dr. Sarca’s dental offices in Kitimack, B.C., thought that her seniority wasn’t being respected at the office. Following angry confrontations with Dr. Sarca, Dilg believed she was unfairly criticized and that her position was undermined. Later, when another dentist took maternity leave, Dilg considered the revised work schedule for all of the staff as tantamount to her demotion. But instead of communicating her concerns to Dr. Sarca, Dilg turned to her co-workers, professing that she did not respect Dr. Sarca and that her husband wanted to beat him up or, worse, kill him.
Dilg’s statements were taken seriously. Her co-workers were tense and the office was on edge. One of them kept the RCMP phone number close at hand in case Dilg’s husband actually showed up. Later, the statements were conveyed to Dr. Sarca, who fired Dilg, relying on her comments as the reasons for her dismissal. Not surprisingly, Dilg responded by suing.
The legal doctrine of cause for dismissal permits employers to immediately terminate employees without notice or severance when their conduct is so injurious that continued employment is no longer appropriate. Finding that Dilg’s behaviour compromised the successful functioning of the business by creating an exceptional level of stress for all involved, a judge recently ruled against Dilg, concluding that her threatening statements were indeed cause for her dismissal. In the Court’s view, Dilg’s actions were so extreme that a warning was neither appropriate nor required.
Whether an employee’s conduct is severe enough to warrant cause for dismissal is assessed by considering whether a lesser form of discipline would have been more appropriate. However, whether the punishment fits the crime in Canadian workplace law is unfortunately sometimes more of a function of the judge you happen to draw than the specific facts of any given case.