When confronted with information that an employee may be abusing paid sick leave, it is only natural for an employer to want to investigate further. One way in which employers may do this is through surreptitious surveillance of the employee. However, a recent arbitration decision in British Columbia shows the potential price tag where an employer acts precipitously in engaging in employee surveillance and then subsequently relies on the surveillance when disciplining or discharging the employee: Unifor, Local 433 v. Crown Packaging Ltd. (PDF), (Giesbrecht Grievance),  B.C.C.A.A.A. No. 43 (Dorsey). In this decision, a labour arbitrator refused to consider the employer’s video surveillance of the employee in a dismissal grievance because the employer had engaged in the surveillance without proper regard to the relevant legal requirements.
The employee in this case, Mr. Giesbrecht, was a long-serving employee of Crown Packaging Ltd. (“Crown Packaging”) with a clean record. He requested vacation for October 7-11, 2013. He was approved for October 7-8 but not for the three other days as there were too many employees already scheduled to be off.
On Friday, October 4th, Mr. Giesbrecht reported a back problem to First Aid. He then took vacation on October 7-8 as approved. During his time off, he called in to once again request vacation for October 9-11. His request was denied. On October 9th, he called his supervisor to advise that he would not be reporting to work for the afternoon shift as scheduled due to a back problem. He indicated that he had a doctor’s note which he then read to his supervisor.
By this time, Crown Packaging was suspicious about the legitimacy of Mr. Giesbrecht’s back problem, as it had received information suggesting that he was planning a road trip. Crown Packaging subsequently hired a private investigator to engage in surreptitious video surveillance of Mr. Giesbrecht.
Based on the surveillance footage which showed him engaging in certain activities in his backyard and away from his home, Crown Packaging dismissed Mr. Giesbrecht for fraudulently claiming sick leave and obtaining short term disability benefits.
At the hearing, the union objected to the admissibility of the video surveillance. Relying on provincial privacy legislation and prior arbitral jurisprudence, Arbitrator Dorsey considered whether Crown Packaging had a “reasonable basis” for engaging in the surveillance. After examining the evidence, the arbitrator concluded that all Crown Packaging had before it undertook the surveillance was “a suspicion based on repeated requests for vacation leave, a report of a possible plan to take a trip, perhaps a reference by Mr. Giesbrecht to a back problem in his telephone call on October 8th and a sick leave report on the first day for which leave was authorized”. All of this had to be weighed against Mr. Giesbrecht’s long tenure, clean record and the fact that he had taken only eight days of sick leave in the past three years.
In addition, the arbitrator noted that the “reasonable basis” requirement necessitates that an employer first consider alternative, less intrusive means to investigate its suspicions. In this case, Crown Packaging made no effort to obtain further information about Mr. Giesbrecht’s sick leave claim from him or anyone else before it commenced surveillance.
As a result, the arbitrator concluded that Crown Packaging did not have a sufficient basis for commencing the surreptitious video surveillance when it did and that the company should have first employed less intrusive means to test the legitimacy of Mr. Giesbrecht’s request.
What this Means for Employers
For employers operating in jurisdictions that have private-sector privacy legislation, this decision is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that there is a “reasonable basis” for engaging in any kind of employee surveillance. In many cases, employers must first consider less intrusive means to test their suspicions. For example, where an employer suspects that an employee may be abusing paid sick leave, the employer could first confront the employee directly about its suspicions or require the employee to provide appropriate medical information. However, in other cases, an employer may have a “reasonable basis” for moving directly to surreptitious surveillance without first engaging in less intrusive measures - such as where an employee has abused paid sick leave in the past or has a history of dishonesty towards the employer. In all cases, however, employers must ensure that they fully consider all of the relevant facts and surrounding circumstances before deciding on how best to proceed.