Mistreatment of long-term employees not tolerated
Court awards $50,000 punitive damages for company's reprehensible conduct.
Alan Shanoff, Special to QMI Agency
A recent British Columbia decision illustrates how employers should not go about terminating long-term employees. Stephanie Vernon started her employment as a clerk with B.C.'s Liquor Distribution Branch at the age of 19. For the next 30 years she was a loyal and valuable employee marching up the ranks until she became a senior store manager. Her last two performance reviews attested to her exemplary performance and work ethic.
But her accomplishments came tumbling down in 2010 following a written complaint by a subordinate followed by a botched investigation. Vernon was dismissed summarily without any termination package. She sued claiming wrongful dismissal. Her employer defended claiming Vernon had engaged in gross workplace misconduct including "bullying, harassing and intimidating subordinates."
Vernon was a no-nonsense sort of boss. She could be loud and intimidating and she certainly did swear, but not in front of customers. She was widely known by the nickname "The Little General" and her employees certainly knew they had better not be seen slacking off under her command. Yet her employees respected her as evidenced by their awarding her an award as "Most Valuable Player" in 2007.
One employee considered Vernon to be a bully and filed a written complaint. This employee's name is protected by a publication ban. She said Vernon intimidated her, made fun of the way she spoke and yelled at her in front of staff and customers. Yet Vernon signed her up for courses to assist her in being promoted. Vernon also granted her request for time off to allow her to study and take a wine course.
Her employer took the complaint seriously, as it should, but it conducted a shoddy investigation. Employee interviews were not impartial. Vernon wasn't given an opportunity to respond to allegations raised in employee interviews. The investigator's report wasn't objective. Following the inept investigation Vernon was dismissed and told "Your actions have embarrassed me and the organization. Frankly, your conduct is shameful and has irreparably damaged your employment relationship with the Liquor Distribution Branch." No matter that Vernon had an exemplary work record for 30 years, had never been the subject of a prior complaint and had never received a warning. Vernon was devastated by the termination and sued.
The trial judge noted Vernon was "a very demanding boss. She was loud and flamboyant. She ran a tight ship and expected much from her employees. She expected her employees to follow her rules. She demanded perfection. She pushed her employees hard, but was as hard on herself as she was on her subordinates."
But Vernon's conduct didn't rise to the level required to establish just cause. Her conduct certainly warranted criticism, perhaps even a stern warning, but it didn't go to the heart of her employment relationship and certainly could not justify a dismissal without notice or a proper termination package.
The court decided Vernon was entitled to a package consisting of 18 months salary. In addition the court awarded additional damages of $35,000 due to the harm caused by the way in which the termination was handled. To top it off the court also ordered her employer to pay punitive damages in the sum of $50,000 for its reprehensible conduct of offering a reference letter only if Vernon resigned.
Employers need to understand that mistreatment of long-term employees can be a very expensive undertaking.
— Alan Shanoff was counsel to Sun Media for 16 years and is currently a freelance writer and teaches media law.