In recent years there seems to have been an increase in the frequency with which employees directly or publicly challenge their supervisors or senior management. Perhaps this is due to an increased awareness of their actual or perceived rights. Of course employees have the right and should be encouraged to raise legitimate workplace concerns, in appropriate circumstances. However, recent decisions have confirmed that it is not acceptable for employees to do so in a manner that is either disrespectful or unfairly undermines management's integrity or reputation.
As a recent decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia confirms, when employees cross this line, it can provide the basis for disciplinary action. In extreme cases, it can result in termination.
In Grewal v. Khalsa Credit Union, the relationship between the CEO and Ms. Grewal, one of the credit union's branch managers, had become strained. Grewal was a long service employee. While her performance reviews were generally positive, she had been effectively demoted on two occasions. The CEO had written to her on several occasions about significant concerns with various aspects of her work.
Apparent irregularities with the renewal of Grewal's personal mortgage then came to light. The CEO initiated an investigation. Before she could be interviewed, Grewal went off work on an unrelated leave of absence. The investigation continued upon her return to work, ten months later.
After interviewing Grewal and before any disciplinary action was taken, the CEO received a letter from her lawyer. In this letter, Grewal's lawyer demanded a written apology. The letter demanded formal acknowledgment that the CEO had acted in bad faith in making baseless allegations regarding both the renewal of Grewal's personal mortgage and her past performance issues. It demanded that the CEO promise to refrain from such conduct in the future. It asserted that the apology must be copied to both the employer's board of directors and a government official, the Deputy Superintendent of Credit Unions and Trusts. A second letter, containing similar demands, followed a few days later. Grewal later sued the Credit Union, alleging she had been wrongfully dismissed.
While the court had some concerns regarding the quality of the investigation into the renewal of the mortgage, it concluded that an investigation was both appropriate and justified. It found the allegations contained in the letters issued by Grewal's lawyer to be baseless. They made the continuation of the employment relationship untenable. The letters, when combined with Grewal's past misconduct, were found to justify her being dismissed for cause, despite her long service.
The court's decision turned not only on the contents of the letters themselves, but the fact the employee's counsel sent copies to the employer's board of directors and the Deputy Superintendent of Credit Unions and Trusts. The letters were found to be both disrespectful and inflammatory. They constituted a deliberate effort to permanently damage the CEO's reputation.
Take-Away for Employers
It can be both difficult and time consuming to deal with employees making allegations regarding inappropriate conduct on the part of management. Employers must exercise great care in responding to these concerns in a careful and considered fashion. But they do not necessarily have to stand for employees who make unfounded allegations of inappropriate conduct by management. Nor must employers retain employees who choose (directly or through lawyers) to express themselves in a manner that unfairly undermines the reputation of the company or its management.