How not to fire an employee

Date: 2010
Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Publication: Metro
I love the tales from the workplace trenches. Those that I select to report are chosen based on a combination of their merit, law, skill – and sometimes error. This is one story of how not to fire an employee.

Maki Nishina was a company success story. Nishina, a Japanese citizen, moved to California and, after graduating, took a job as an assistant with Japanese seafood producer Azuma Foods. When the company opened a seafood processing plant in Richmond, B.C., Nishina was asked to move there and take a promotion as a supervisor in quality control.

Nishina eventually clashed with a manager over a product which, in her view, was not yet approved by Canadian regulators. Shortly afterwards, she was disciplined again for sending an email to her personal email address so she could work from home. When the email bounced back to the company’s IT department, Nishina was summoned to a meeting and told that the company could no longer trust her and that she could no longer use its computer system. Distraught about what she perceived to be a demotion, Nishina went back to her desk and cleaned out her personal items, also deleting any personal emails from her computer.

When Azuma learned Nishina had taken her personal belongings and deleted files from its computer, it decided to immediately fire her, accusing her of taking confidential information.

Since Nishina had only taken her personal items home, she sued the company for wrongful dismissal and for punitive damages based on the manner in which she had been dismissed.

At a recent trial, Azuma was chastised for what the court viewed was its hardball tactics in firing Nishina. The grounds it relied on to fire her were viewed as “weak” and the company’s response to Nishina’s conduct was out of proportion with her actions, drawing “exaggerated conclusions” about her conduct. Further, the court found that Azuma failed to act in good faith at the time of Nishina’s termination, because as a foreign worker on a work permit, she was particularly vulnerable to the company’s actions on termination. As a result, the court awarded her an additional $20,000 in punitive damages, which are usually restricted to the most serious forms of misconduct.

The decision serves as a reminder to employers to tread carefully when dismissing employees or risk facing additional punitive damages that the courts will award when an otherwise garden-variety termination is complicated by unfounded allegations of employee misbehaviour.