An employer has the power to discipline employees if their behaviour is at odds with the employer’s policies and rules governing conduct in the workplace.
But do employers have the same disciplinary power regarding reprehensible behaviour that occurs outside the workplace? An arbitrator recently had to decide this question in the matter of Syndicat des travailleurs et travailleuses Canam Structal (CSN) and Groupe Canam pour son établissement Structal1.
Two employees were involved in a violent altercation near the workplace, the cause of which did not at first blush appear to be work-related. The complainant, angry with a colleague over an unpaid debt, had blocked the passage of his colleague’s car on a public street and then proceeded to damage it with an iron bar. The situation degenerated into a violent physical altercation on the street and in the parking lot of the workplace. The arbitrator had to decide if the complainant’s conduct justified his dismissal.
The arbitrator first of all had to determine the scope and extent of the employer’s disciplinary power. Citing another arbitrator in the matter of Boulangerie Pom ltée2 she pointed out that a parking lot adjacent to a factory that was for the employees’ use was considered part of the workplace.
As for that part of the altercation that took place outside the workplace, the arbitrator stated that a dispute between employees that degenerated to such an extent could not be overlooked on the pretext that the reprehensible conduct occurred after working hours and outside the workplace. In the arbitrator’s view, upholding such an argument would undermine the employer’s authority and its obligation to ensure the health and safety of its employees. It would also create the impression that a dispute that began in the workplace could be settled by violent means outside the workplace with no negative repercussions.
The arbitrator found that the dispute was not strictly private in nature, as it had begun in the workplace during the employees’ shift. She identified the start of the altercation as the moment during the shift when one of the employees demanded repayment of a debt and was thereupon threatened. Moreover, their supervisor had to intervene to quell their heated verbal exchange, and issue a stern warning to them about the employer’s zero-tolerance policy on violence in the workplace. The fact that the debt had been contracted outside the workplace and, as the union demonstrated, that the two employees had had a longstanding friendship that had ended bitterly, putting an end to their cohabitation, was not sufficient for the dispute to be considered unconnected to the workplace.
In her decision, the arbitrator came to the conclusion that the complainant’s aggressive and dangerously violent behaviour towards a colleague was grounds for dismissal. She cited the arbitrator’s dictum in Danone inc.3 to the effect that Quebec society has adopted rules of conduct that impose on employers the obligation to provide all employees (and not just the employer’s representatives) with a safe and secure workplace free from harassment. The arbitrator also took into account several instances of insubordination on the complainant’s part, as well as the premeditated nature of his behaviour and his lack of remorse.
The takeaway from this decision is that an employer’s disciplinary power does extend to reprehensible conduct outside of the workplace and after working hours, where there is a reasonable connection between such conduct and the workplace.