Workplace personality conflicts are becoming all too common in the Canadian workplace given the heightened sensitivity to workplace harassment. With growing frequency, employees are raising concerns about how they are treated by senior management. However, what happens if an employee crosses the line between a legitimate concern to undermining the very essence of the employment relationship? Can this type of behaviour justify the employee’s termination for cause? The British Columbia Court of Appeal recently concluded that the answer is “YES” in its decision Grewal v. Khalsa Credit Union (2012) BCCA 56.
Over the course of 10 years, Ms. Grewal had worked her way to become the Manager of the Vancouver Branch of the Credit Union. However, her colleagues had raised issues with her performance to the CEO and Ms. Grewal was then transferred to the Abbotsford Branch by way of a demotion. Grewal and the CEO did not see eye-to-eye on this demotion. Consequently, a personality conflict developed between Ms. Grewal and the CEO. Ms. Grewal ultimately was promoted to the Manager of the Surrey Branch several years later.
Things came to a head when the CEO raised concerns about a mortgage that Ms. Grewal had secured for herself from the Credit Union. The CEO sent a memorandum to the Board of Directors entitled “Scandal” and an investigation was commenced. Ms. Grewal was offended by the allegations and she left work on a sick leave before she could be interviewed as part of the investigation. Upon her return to work, she was called into a meeting to answer questions with respect to the mortgage.
The day after the interview, Ms. Grewal’s counsel delivered a letter to the CEO and the Board of Directors of the Credit Union alleging, among other things, the CEO had tried to destroy Ms. Grewal’s reputation by way of the investigation, he had made serious and unwarranted invasions into her privacy, he raised concerns about the legitimacy of the mortgage matter and he threatened legal action if an apology was not provided.
The Credit Union responded by saying Ms. Grewal’s “insubordination, refusal to follow policies and procedures and other improper conduct demonstrates she has acted in a manner that is incompatible with continued employment with the Credit Union”. Grewal did not return to work and she commenced an action for wrongful dismissal.
The Trial Judge held the Credit Union had not terminated Ms. Grewal’s employment when it responded to her counsel’s letter. However, the Trial Judge held that Grewal’s lawyer’s letter was so “disrespectful” and “inflammatory” that it undermined the employment relationship and constituted “just cause” for Ms. Grewal’s termination:
Ms. Grewal was the branch manager of the credit union. She was in a position of trust and responsibility. In order for her to perform her duties, it was essential she retain the confidence of her superiors. The September 1 Letter permanently undermined the employment relationship and made it impossible for Ms. Grewal and the CEO to continue working together. In the totality of the circumstances, the September 1 Letter constituted just cause for dismissal.
The British Columbia Court of Appeal found that there was no reason to interfere with the reasoning of the Trial Judge.
This case is significant because it demonstrates that employees, who have concerns about their workplace, must conduct themselves in a proper manner, not raise allegations that can’t be proven and conduct themselves in such a way as not to undermine the very essence of the employment relationship.
Simon Heath LL.B, M.I.R.
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