Fired for Off-Duty Conduct: Should that hold up?

Can inappropriate off-duty conduct be used by an employer to dismiss an employee for just cause?  The answer is far from clear.

By now, you have probably read about or seen a video of the incident at BMO field.  A CityNews reporter was heckled with the obscene phrase “FHRITP” by a guy looking to grab some attention and get himself on the news.  One of the guys with him defended the vulgarity and expanded on it.  The reporter, Shauna Hunt, fired back.  She professionally pushed these guys, on air, to explain why they would act in such demeaning fashion towards a female reporter.  This was not the first time she had been faced with this harassment and she decided to push back.  The video made its way through cyberspace.  Shortly afterwards, HydroOne fired one of the guys involved in the incident.  Here is the video of the incident.

I am not looking to defend the behaviour of these louts.  There should be little societal tolerance for those who wish to attack and delegitimize women reporters by yelling obscene sexual phrases at them.  Perhaps a complaint could be filed with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and damages could be awarded.  Maybe some type of civil lawsuit would be appropriate.  Or perhaps there are other avenues for dealing with this.

But the question in an employment law blog – is whether this justifies the loss of employment for the obscene heckler and his off-duty conduct.  Even though this happened after a soccer match rather than a basketball game, The answer is still no slam dunk.

If these individuals had been employees of MLSE, for example, and had yelled out these phrases, on air, at an MLSE event, the connection would be clear.  They would have been acting as representative employees of MLSE and there would have been little doubt that dismissal would be the appropriate remedy.  Or if they had been fellow reporters, at the scene while conducting other interviews.

But the guy who was fired was an employee of HydroOne which had nothing to do with this incident.  So the individual was fired for off-duty, obscene conduct, which had no connection to his employment.  He was not charged.  The public would not have associated him with HydroOne, unless he was in a position in which he would regularly deal with public.  If for example, he was in a customer relations position at HydroOne, or a human resources role, the case might be a bit different.

HydroOne has stated that this was a violation of their “Code of Conduct.”  It is certainly admirable of the company to take a strong stand against sexual harassment in the workplace and in society in general.  It is understandable and legally supportable that HydroOne would take steps to ensure that nothing like this occurs in its workplace or in connection with its workplaces.

But off-duty conduct that violates a “code of conduct?”  What are the limits of that code?  Lots of activities might be violations.  Does an employer have the right to follow employees around, off hours, and check up on whether their off-duty activities may or may not violate a code of conduct?  Will HydroOne send representatives to its employees’ private, off-duty parties to monitor what happens once their employees have a few drinks?  Will HydroOne start firing employees for behaviour at their kids’ hockey games, where many parents yell all kinds of obscene things?  Where is the line?

In response, HydroOne might say that they did not need to follow anyone anywhere nor do they intend to do so.   This incident simply became so public that the association with HydroOne caused public embarrassment – to the employee and to the employer.  HydroOne had to act to send a public message that it takes sexual harassment seriously.

While I can certainly understand the embarrassment to the employee, I’m just not sure that anyone would have drawn a tie in between the employee and HydroOne if HydroOne had not identified the protagonist as a HydroOne worker.

If the employee was in a non-unionized position, the issue would simply be whether or not there was “just cause” for terminating his employment.  He would probably bring a wrongful dismissal lawsuit – and there is a reasonable likelihood that a settlement would be reached at some point, though it would be confidential.  But he would not get his job back and he would have few other remedies, aside from some compensation for the loss of his position.  If he could show that HydroOne’s conduct had violated the Ontario Human Rights Code in some way or if he could convince a judge that this was “bad faith” conduct, he might get additional damages.  But that seems like a stretch.  If successful, he would probably wind up with a decent severance package, perhaps in the range of one month per year worked.

On the other hand, if the employee was unionized, he could file a grievance and ask to be reinstated to his position.  He could argue that some action short of dismissal would have been appropriate.  A public apology, a short suspension or some other disciplinary measures.  Or perhaps, even, none at all.  An adjudicator will have to decide whether the employment relationship became so damaged that he could no longer continue as an employee.

In either case, the employer will argue that the employee’s very public behaviour was a violation of its code of conduct and caused the employer public embarrassment.  The employer had to make it clear that sexual harassment, by its employees, while not be tolerated even if the incidents in question involve off-duty conduct.

I have to conclude that this could be a frightening precedent.  Not because I am trying to defend this guy’s conduct, which I am certainly not.  But because I would have concerns about the extent to which a person’s unrelated off-duty conduct, even if reprehensible, can lead to termination of employment in a position that has nothing to do with the conduct.  If it is conduct for which someone is criminally charged – and perhaps even convicted, that becomes a different story.  Or if the conduct is somehow related to the type of position.  For example, if this guy had been a teacher.  One can easily see that parents would be wary of having their children taught by a teacher who conducts himself in this fashion.

But if the type of employment has no relationship whatsoever to the type of incident, the link becomes far more questionable.

We have already seen stories of employers scouring the Facebook pages of potential employees and even asking for Facebook passwords to be able to gather information about job candidates.   It has become clear that no conduct, these days, is truly private when everyone is equipped with a cell phone with a video camera and the ability to instantly upload movies.  But are there any limits as to how employers and potential employers can use all of this information and media?  This is probably an area of law that will continue to develop, quite rapidly.  But the incident does emphasize the point that any inappropriate conduct can become public extremely quickly.  Certainly police offers across Canada and the U.S. have been learning that lesson.

Maybe it is ultimately beneficial for society that people can suffer significant consequences for highly inappropriate behaviour.  Such behaviour might include public instances of harassment, racism, anti-Semitism and other demeaning behaviour.  But I’m just not sure that summary dismissal with no compensation, the “capital punishment of employment law” and being left without a job or an income is the correct remedy here.

It will be interesting to hear what Canadian courts have to say about this.  We will have to watch and see how this case develops.

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