A recent decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice proves how challenging just cause dismissals can be for employers. In this case, the Court found that an employee who punched a co-worker in the nose did not deserve the “capital punishment” in employment law – dismissal for cause.

The employee had 15 years of service as an assembler with Northfield Metal Products. He received a complaint from a co-worker that he was not doing his job appropriately, and the two engaged in a heated verbal exchange. The following day, the co-worker accidently bumped the employee with his elbow when they passed each other. The employee responded by punching the co-worker, resulting in a nose bleed.

The employer immediately fired the employee for cause, and the employee subsequently sued for wrongful dismissal.

At trial, the Court sided with the employee, awarding him 15 months’ pay in lieu of notice for, among others, the following reasons:

The employer failed to investigate the incident and give the employee an opportunity to explain his perspective The employer did not consider the employee’s “unblemished” employment record when choosing the correct punishment The employer did not satisfy itself that a reasonable alternative to dismissal for cause was impossible The employer did not follow its workplace violence policy by not considering progressive disciplinary action

This case does not stand for the proposition that workplace violence will never warrant dismissal for cause. In fact, employers have a duty under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to protect employees from and respond to workplace violence. This case reminds employers, however, that this duty does not exist in a vacuum, and does not automatically justify dismissal for cause. In this regard, employers should be mindful that disciplinary action should be proportional, and should factor in: the nature of the incident; the employee’s record; the possibility of continued employment; whether the employee has taken responsibility for the misconduct; and whether the workplace violence policy allows for progressive discipline.

A thorough investigation of any violent incident can allow for a genuine evaluation of the matter and the appropriate disciplinary steps to take in response. Even where the employer decides to proceed with a just cause dismissal, an investigation can satisfy an employer (and a Court, if litigation ensues) that such a response took into account all of the relevant factors.