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No cause for termination without policy and discipline

It seems that employers must continually learn that it’s crucial to have clear written policies in place governing employee conduct and discipline, and to apply those policies consistently. An Alberta Employment Standards Umpire recently heard a case that reiterates the simple lesson.

Facts of the case

A hair salon fired a stylist of nine years after she made some changes in the salon’s appointment book, which the owners said had caused disharmony among the stylists, cost some stylists earnings and harmed relationships with customers. The stylist argued that the employer had no policy on rearranging appointments, and it was a common practice anyway. The employer couldn’t provide any evidence of the policies it claimed to have on employee conduct.

The receptionist or other staff scheduled appointments, as available. The salon arranged appointments based on the type of service required and which stylist was best suited to the service. These appointments might be rearranged depending on various factors. Clients could also request a specific stylist, and no one was supposed to switch these appointments without the permission of a manager. The salon also accepted walk-in clients who would be served by whichever stylist was available. This was the employer’s expressed policy, and the receptionists and stylists were all aware of it, but it did not exist in writing.

The employer alleged that the employee changed several appointments where a client requested a specific stylist, without permission. Moreover:

…the appointment book was a matter of ultimate confidence in the manner in which fellow employees of the salon were to be treated fairly, equitably and equally. … these unilateral changes to the staff appointment book ultimately led to disharmony among staff, inequitable distribution of income amongst the staff and would ultimately, if allowed to continue, affect the financial liability of the business.

The behaviour was “unacceptable … real and significant misconduct … unprofessional,” and worthy of immediate termination.

The employee argued that in her nine years with the salon, she had never seen any policy and never been given any reprimand or warning for making changes to the appointment book. And she occasionally filled in as receptionist, so she should have had as much knowledge of policy as anyone. She also said that she and others regularly made changes to the appointment book without seeking permission.

The umpire found that the behaviour might have been inappropriate, but it certainly did not justify dismissal, especially without a written policy and a course of progressive discipline to support it.

It seems very clear that if this behaviour was this important to the [employer], then it should have been brought home to the employee in writing with a very specific warning that this kind of conduct will be considered unacceptable and if not followed, would result in immediate dismissal without notice by the employee. Clearly that situation does not exist here.

The umpire dismissed the employer’s appeal and upheld the labour standards officer’s decision that the employee was wrongfully dismissed and entitled to termination pay of $3,634.80.

No doubt countless employers have operated for many years without policies on employee conduct and discipline, or specific employer practices. This policy gap may never become an issue, but it is an unnecessary risk that is simple to eliminate and could easily save an employer much more than the amount owed in this case.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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