Attention Employers and Employees: Can A Single Incident of Employee Misconduct Lead to Termination?

The short answer is YES.  A recent case out of the British Columbia Court of Appeal, Steel v. Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, 2015 BCCA 127, is an example.  In this case, Ms. Steel had worked for Coast Capital for 21 years, and at the time of the incident worked as an IT Helpdesk Analyst.  In that role, she was part of a team that provided technical assistance to other employees of Coast Capital.  Each employee had a personal folder with confidential information contained within it.  Coast Capital had a protocol for analysts to follow to allow them to access an employee’s personal folder.  The protocol was followed rigidly due to the private and confidential nature of the information held by the employer.  Ms. Steel, the court found, was aware of the protocol and that a breach of the protocol could lead to termination.

On one occasion, Ms. Steel accessed the personal information of another employee, her Manager, who had been trying to access their own personal information but could not as Ms. Steel was accessing the file at that time.  Coast Capital terminated Ms. Steel’s employment for cause, based on her breach of the protocol.

Ms. Steel commenced a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal arguing that the one breach of the protocol in her 21-year employment should not be grounds for dismissal for cause.  The trial judge dismissed her claim, finding in favour of Coast Capital.  On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s decision that based on the facts of the case, dismissal for cause was warranted.  The result: no severance or damages payable to Ms. Steel.

What can employers and employees learn from this case?

  • Employers should ensure that their employees are aware of policies that are in place to govern issues like privacy and confidentiality, misconduct in the workplace and other issues that may result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal for cause. Employees should be reminded periodically of these policies and not just at the beginning of their employment.
  • Employees should ensure they are aware of and follow any policies that affect their position and be extremely cautious of acting outside of the expected conduct. It is now clear that a single incident of employee misconduct may, depending on the circumstances of each specific case, lead to summary termination for just cause.

If you are an employer or an employee and require advice with respect to your rights and responsibilities, please feel free to contact Sitka Law Group.  We are located on Shelbourne Street near the border of Saanich, Oak Bay and Victoria.