There are certainly occasions to shoot first and ask questions later in relation to employee misconduct, particularly in the era of #MeToo. There are also good reasons for an employer to “lock down” employees and quash gossip when important investigations are ongoing. For an employer in Alberta, a bit of patience in both would have gone a long way.
Alisha Garnett was an employee with the Alberta Motor Association. In September 2014, the Alberta government began investigating allegations of forgery in the office.
Garnett was told by the AMA’s director, Kreg Loewen, not to disclose any details of the investigation to staff members. Loewen told her this included her direct supervisor.
Garnett was diligent. She didn’t provide any details, and when asked, told staff members she could not discuss it. Even when a co-worker pressured Garnett for the information, she resisted.
Then Garnett left on vacation.
While she was away, her supervisor sent two emails to Loewen accusing Garnett of telling the team (a) details of the investigation and (b) that they were “in trouble” and the government was investigating. The supervisor also made accusations about alleged complaints regarding Garnett’s leadership skills and decision-making.
Two days after Garnett returned, the supervisor sent another email to Loewen, stating that Garnett had admitted telling the team “everything she knew.”
At trial, Garnett testified that the contents of that email were untrue.
Unfortunately for the employer, it never bothered to ask Garnett about these incidents.
Instead, AMA told Garnett that her job was on the line, and that the “higher ups” were making a decision. Two days later, AMA terminated Garnett for cause, refusing to allow her even to retrieve personal items from her desk and escorting her out the back door.
AMA relied on insubordination for the termination, stating that Garnett could have endangered the entire investigation and AMA’s reputation.
The Court did not agree. Despite Garnett being only 28 years old and having six years of service – factors that allowed her to secure new employment just 19 days after she was terminated – the Court awarded her nine months’ worth of notice.
It added aggravated damages (albeit only $5,000 worth), for the improper investigation into the alleged cause against Garnett.
This case holds lessons for both employers and employees.
Employers will want to look for information that corroborates any allegations they make. Similarly, an accused employee should be told the basics of what is being alleged against them. When it comes to quashing employee gossip during an investigation, keeping a tight hold on employees is important – but so is avoiding jumping to conclusions.
For employees, failing to keep matters confidential during an investigation can be cause for termination – loose lips really do sink ships. On the other hand, if your employer accuses you of wrongdoing, you have the right to, and you certainly should, ask about the allegations against you.
• Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt LLP, employment and labour lawyers. He practises employment law in eight provinces. The most recent of his six books is War Stories from the Workplace: Columns by Howard Levitt.