Introduction

Proper policies, communications and investigations are key to dealing with workplace violence. Belyea v Syncrude Canada Ltd (2018 ABQB 132) involved a workplace altercation after a senior Syncrude employee found a junior employee sitting in his favourite lunchroom chair. After conducting an in-depth investigation, Syncrude fired the senior worker for cause. The worker then sued for wrongful dismissal.

Workplace violence is a serious concern for both employees and employers alike. Employees expect safe workplaces and employers have a concomitant duty to ensure their safety. Therefore, it is critical for employers to understand how to minimise workplace violence and respond if it arises. Syncrude's handling of this situation is exemplary and offers key lessons on how to address workplace aggression.

Facts

Mr Belyea worked for Syncrude for 10 years as a crane operator. During this time, he received positive performance reviews and was a valued employee. He was conscientious, diligent and committed to team goals.

However, Belyea had a history of workplace aggression:

  • In 2003 he verbally confronted another worker inappropriately and was required to attend conflict management training.
  • In 2006 he had an interpersonal conflict with a customer.
  • In 2010 he was aggressive to a worker, resulting in a disciplinary corrective action plan and a warning that termination could result if his behaviour failed to improve.

In 2012 Belyea entered the lunchroom in which his favourite chair was stationed and discovered a junior employee sitting in the chair eating lunch out of a Tupperware container. Belyea told the employee to "get up" but the employee refused. Belyea threatened to start a scene. When the employee again refused to move, Belyea threw a bike chain and lock that he was carrying at the worker. The chain hit the employee's hand and broke his lunch container.

Following the incident, Syncrude conducted an investigation in which it:

  • heard Belyea's account;
  • interviewed multiple witnesses; and
  • allowed Belyea to review and respond to the junior worker's complaint.

Syncrude found that Belyea's credibility was poor and that he had breached the company's Treatment of Employees (TOE) Policy.

After the investigation, Syncrude held a termination hearing in which Belyea was again afforded an opportunity to discuss his conduct. He continued to deny his actions and refused to accept responsibility for what transpired. Syncrude decided to terminate Belyea for cause for breaching the TOE Policy.

Decision

In a wrongful dismissal suit, the employer bears the burden of proving that dismissal for cause is justified. The test is highly contextual and requires that an employer demonstrate:

  • the nature and extent of the behaviour; and
  • that the surrounding circumstances fundamentally undermine the employment relationship.

Due to the importance of work to the livelihoods of employees, the court warned that caution must be exercised when terminating a worker for cause. Nevertheless, Syncrude's decision to terminate Belyea for cause was upheld on the following grounds:

  • Belyea breached Syncrude's TOE Policy, which clearly prohibited all forms of violence.
  • Belyea was aware of the policy; it was referred to in his hire letter and he received multiple training sessions on employee treatment both before and after he was hired.
  • Belyea was progressively disciplined by Syncrude for his aggression.
  • Belyea failed to accept responsibility or demonstrate any remorse.

These factors led the court to conclude that Belyea's conduct had undermined the employment relationship to the extent that a dismissal for cause was warranted.

Comment

The decision offers the following key lessons for employers:

  • Draft policies broadly – employers should draft workplace violence policies to ensure that they apply to all acts of violence, whether threatened, attempted or actual violence.
  • Provide adequate notice – according to the court, whether the terminated employee knew about the policy was significant. Employers should:
    • present their policy to employees as part of their offer or explicitly reference the policy in an employment agreement;
    • provide training regarding the policy from time to time; and
    • consider posting notices referencing the policy in visible areas.
  • Be consistent with progressive discipline – employers should consider introducing a programme that implements progressively severe consequences for violating the policy. The policy should also reserve the employer's right to terminate the employee immediately where the circumstances require swift action.
  • Conduct a thorough investigation – if an incident of workplace violence arises, employers should interview all parties and witnesses in a timely manner and provide the impugned employee with an adequate opportunity to review and respond to the complaint.

For further information on this topic please contact Theodore Fong or Claire Himsl at Fasken by telephone (+1 403 837 0610) or email (tfong@fasken.com or chimsl@fasken.com). The Fasken website can be accessed at www.fasken.com.

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