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Making A Mountain Out Of A Timbit

News reports last week were full of accounts of an employee fired by a Tim Horton’s franchise for having given a timbit to a child. This saga demonstrated one aspect of employee management which employers tend to get wrong and it also involved one very savvy public relations move by Tim Horton’s.
 
The story is quite simple. The employee provided a timbit – said to have a retail value of 16 cents – to the child of a customer, free of charge. The employee did not pay the cost of the timbit, nor did the customer. 
 
The event came to the attention of management and, the next day, they dismissed the employee (reportedly for “giving baby product without paying”). The employee acknowledged the unauthorized act of giving and, according to media reports, said goodbye to her $9 per hour job in tears. Her next act was to contact a newspaper.
 
The act of dismissing an employee over the loss of a product valued at 16 cents (the actual cost to the franchise would, I assume, be less) was an example of management slavishly following policies at the expense of good reason. According to published reports, the franchise did have a policy prohibiting giving away food. But was a minor breach of that policy good cause for dismissing an employee with three years of service?
 
I have said many times that slavish adherence to corporate policies must be avoided at all costs. The entire premise underlying the law of employment (in both the union and non-union settings) is that each situation must be assessed and dealt with in context and on its own merits. Outcomes which are dictated by policy and which do not take into account the contextual setting are sure to fail.
 
The situation for the employer is even worse when the alleged violation is at the most minor end of the scale. One can understand that being caught repeatedly giving away product of substantial value, after having been warned about the consequences, would place the employer in a strong position to assert it had just cause for summary dismissal. On the other hand, a single instance of good will towards a customer, when the amount involved is truly a scant few cents, surely wouldn’t. 
 
It’s not the policy that is the problem. It’s the application of the policy.
 
Once the employee made the decision to contact the media, and the story was whipped into a national news event, the decision to dismiss was really doomed. It was at that moment that Tim Horton’s made a very wise decision to admit a mistake had been made.
 
A representative of Tim Horton’s fell on the sword at precisely the right moment. The statement to the media said, “It was an unfortunate incident where a manager acted a bit overzealously. The actions of that manager were not appropriate, nor were they grounds for dismissal.”
 
Rather than digging into the employee’s history to find some other alleged wrongdoing, rather than spinning the story to protect the manager, rather than cloaking the whole incident in the corporate need to adhere to policy, Tim Horton’s admitted its wrongdoing. In doing that, it defused the story, putting a quick end to an embarrassing occurrence.
 
Like a golfer who follows up a shanked tee shot by chipping back onto the fairway (rather than potentially making the situation worse by attempting a heroic shot through the trees to the hole) Tim Horton’s accepted the story would cause some damage and acted to ensure the damage didn’t spread. The decision to respond with candour and humility showed not only public relations savvy on the part of Tim Horton’s, but a mature management style as well.
 
They then went the extra mile and reinstated the employee to work in a different store (presumably some distance away from the “overzealous” manager). 
 
So, I offer a “well done” to Tim Horton’s for having policies in place which address workplace issues, for having the good sense to admit when one of those policies was applied in an inappropriate fashion, and for acting to rectify the situation. Now, perhaps, they might focus some resources on improving their management training.
 
 
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/.