Cautioning the bully before a termination
In recent years, employers have become sensitized to issues of harassment in the workplace. Labour standards have begun to require employers to investigate and deal with harassment issues. When dealing with bullying and abusive employees, however, employers must remember that other than in the most exceptional circumstances, cautioning the employee and giving them a chance to reform is important.
If an employer wants to take the position that there is just cause for the termination and that no severance is owed, a clear warning that the behaviour is unacceptable and endangering the employment relationship is required.
Bill worked as a supervisor for a pipeline construction company for 12 years, supervising up to 20 drivers. He worked with but did not supervise three female office staff.
Bill’s son worked for the company and despite having a wife and child at home, got into the habit of spending a lot of time drinking with two of the female employees, one of whom was a part owner and daughter of a principle of the company. This made Bill angry but instead of blaming his son for his own behaviour, he decided it was the female office staff that was leading his good boy astray.
Bill got into the nasty habit of referring to the women in the office with the word used to describe a female dog. He would rarely use that word without a descriptive swear word to go with it. He never used this language to their face, but routinely used it while referring to them in front of employees who reported to him.
Eventually, word got back to the female office staff and they started to complain.
Bill was also in the habit of being abusive and bullying with the boss’s daughter. Eventually, she confronted Bill and told him she was fully aware of the kind of language he was using to describe her and her female colleagues and told him it had to stop.
When that did not have the desired effect on Bill, she got her father involved, the president of the company. The president did not work on site and had never dealt with Bill directly in his 12 years of employment. In the spring of Bill’s twelfth year, the boss called Bill, talked to him about the behaviour and told him that if he did not stop calling the girls names, he would lose his job and that in order to keep his job he had to apologize.
Apparently Bill was impressed enough by the fact that the president had talked to him directly for the first time in 12 years that he did apologize and the name-calling ceased.
Throughout Bill’s 12 years of experience, he was employed in a series of short term contracts as each project started and stopped. Even though Bill did lay off the name-calling, the president had decided he wasn’t going to hire Bill for the next project. Between projects, however, Bill’s son was in an accident that left him severely disabled and on compassionate grounds, he hired Bill for the next project. Bill, however, seemed incapable of keeping his mouth shut. In a meeting with the boss’s son before the next project started, he complained that one of the female office staff, not the boss’s daughter, had given his son a sexually transmitted disease. It took some time, but the son eventually reported this comment to his father. When the president found out, Bill was terminated and given no severance pay. The employer took the position that it had just cause.
At trial, the judge found that the Bill had engaged in repeated name-calling, bullying and aggressive behaviour over an extended period of time. The judge found that the name-calling amounted to sexual harassment.
It was important to the judge, as it should have been, that Bill had been clearly warned that his continued abusive behaviour would result in termination of his employment.
What the employer did right was warn Bill directly and clearly that he was endangering his job by his behaviour. An employer can stack up as many witnesses it wants and as long a history of bullying as can be imagined but except in the most outrageous of circumstances, without a warning, a termination is going to be followed by a severance package.
As published by The Hamilton Spectator, January 9, 2012