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Workplace Is No Place For Threats

Now and then every married employee vents about her employment to her spouse. When the spouse reacts by saying that he wants to "beat" and
"kill" the boss, the employee had best not repeat those statements in the workplace.
 
That's because, in B.C. at least, spreading that kind of information around can amount to just cause for summary dismissal. The case in
point involved an employee, Dilg, who was fired from her employment as a dental assistant at a Dr. Sarca's dentistry practice in Kitimat.  
 
Due to a variety of circumstances over a period of time, Dilg's relationship with Dr. Sarca had deteriorated. Both were unhappy with
the other, and they'd had angry confrontations in the workplace in front of patients.
 
In 2007, Dilg was angry about what she perceived to be a demotion. Her anger created an atmosphere of tension in the office and Dilg discussed
with other staff her perception of having been treated unfairly by her employer. 
 
She told the other staff she hated the dentist and that she was often going home crying at night. In the course of these discussions, she also let it be known that her husband was very upset about the situation and that he said he wanted to "beat the sh%#" out of the dentist and wanted to "kill him".
 
Dilg went on to tell the other employees that if her husband ever came through the office door, they should hide. The staff apparently took all this information seriously, to the point that they formulated a contingency plan for contacting the police in case Dilg's husband did show up.
 
Inevitably (it seems it's difficult to keep a death threat against the boss quiet), the dentist heard the story of what Dilg's husband had said. He reacted by dismissing Dilg and she sued the dental practice for wrongful dismissal.
 
The legal rules relating to summary dismissal (termination without notice or pay in lieu thereof) of non-union employees flow from a 2001 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.   The McKinley v. B.C.Tel decision suggested that non-union employers should be following essentially the same sort of progressive discipline procedures as unionized employers. 
 
The McKinley decision compels employers to take into account the context of the wrongdoing and to apply escalating measures before resorting to dismissal. This usually forces the employer to work harder, and longer, before concluding that just cause for summary dismissal exists.
 
The current approach means the likelihood of just cause for summary dismissal existing after only a single incident of misconduct is very low. Now and then, however, an employee engages in such deplorable behaviour that the employer is justified in dismissing after just one occurrence. It appears the B.C. Supreme Court felt that was the case in Dilg's circumstances.
 
The Court determined that the dentist had concluded the threat to himself and his dental practice was a real one. It found that Dilg's actions threatened the very root of the employment relationship and that, in the circumstances, a warning was not required.
 
Dilg's conduct, in making assertions about her husband's likely actions, had compromised the functioning of Dr. Sarca's office by creating an exceptional level of stress for everyone. As a result, the dentist was justified in terminating her employment summarily. The Court viewed her actions as extreme and noted that, at trial, she remained unrepentant.
 
As strange as it may seem, I find this result somewhat surprising. The threat of harm to Dilg's employer was, after all, made by her husband in private. He didn't confront the dentist or make any form of threat directly, nor was there any evidence that he truly intended to do so. Dilg didn't repeat the threats directly to Dr. Sarca - they only reached him via the office grapevine.
 
However, it appears the Court was guided by its consideration of the context. Dr. Sarca's office was a small workplace and it appeared to the Court that Dilg's conduct had made it extremely difficult for the office to function. In those circumstances, it's plain something had to be done. 
 
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to http://www.pushormitchell.com/.