Wednesday, 8 April 2015

False Harassment Claim Warrants Discharge

While it may be foolish for an employer to take a complaint of harassment or bullying lightly, it is equally unwise to assume that all complainants are making claims for legitimate reasons.  When an employer determines that an employee has fabricated or greatly embellished a complaint against a co-worker or supervisor for some improper purpose, the employer should seriously consider taking action against the complainant.  As a recent decision of a labour arbitrator recognizes, making false and bad faith accusations may warrant severe discipline.

In Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3261 v. University of Toronto, the union grieved the discharge of an employee after the employer determined that the grievor had fabricated an allegation of workplace bullying and violence against a co-worker.  The grievor claimed that he had been the victim of an escalating pattern of harassment and bullying which culminated in the co-worker threatening him in a stairwell with a knife.  Over the course of several years, the employee had frequently complained about the tradespeople who he interacted with, and claimed that his supervisor and other members of management were complicit in his being harassed.  The employer adduced evidence that the grievor had a history of making complaints against co-workers to deflect blame whenever his performance or conduct was brought into issue.  The employer conducted an investigation and became dubious of the legitimacy of the complaint.  The complainant had initially given one date for the incident and when he reported it, but then provided different information.  When he first spoke to a manager about the alleged incident, it was after an issue of his behaviour had been raised, and he seemed to suggest that it was a "little thing".  He also declined to provide any details (such as the date and location where the incident occurred), although the union provided this information weeks later when it questioned why the employer had not investigated the alleged threat.  Ultimately, the investigation team compared their notes, and the inconsistencies and discrepancies in the complainant's reporting of the incident, and concluded that he had fabricated the situation.  Although the grievor had relatively little discipline on his record, the employer decided that his falsification of a complaint of workplace violence was sufficiently egregious that he should be discharged.  After he was fired, the grievor made a claim to the WSIB, indicating yet another date for the incident and adding further details about being bumped and having a chair kicked out from under him.

After reviewing the evidence, Arbitrator Cummings agreed with the employer's decision and found that the University "came to the correct conclusion" (i.e., that the grievor made up the story in an effort to get the co-worker in trouble and deflect attention away from his own bizarre behaviour).  In the Arbitrator's view, the employee routinely offered inconsistent accounts of what had occurred or when, and sought to take breaks or adjourn the hearing whenever he was challenged on these inconsistencies, so he would have time to develop an explanation. Moreover, the grievor's failure to document and provide details of the incident was not in keeping with his past practice when complaining about co-workers or supervisory staff.  In short, the Arbitrator found that the grievor was not credible and his evidence was unreliable.

In terms of the penalty of discharge, the Arbitrator acknowledged being troubled by the way in which the grievor's co-workers had openly shunned and bullied him in the past. At least one of the grievor's co-workers had admitted to trying to exclude him from eating in the trades shop.  However, given the gap in time between the last incident of bullying and when the false accusation was laid, the Arbitrator did not consider this mistreatment to be a mitigating factor.  The grievor's failure to admit his wrongdoing, however, was a seriously aggravating factor:
The aggravating factor is Mr. Tropak’s failure to take any responsibility for his termination. Making an unfounded allegation of a threat of workplace violence is malicious. Mr. Tropak has aggravated that misconduct by lying to the employer, the union and to the arbitrator in maintaining to the end that Mr. Ford threatened him with a knife. I echo the concerns of the employer that it is hard to imagine rebuilding an employment relationship with someone who lies about such a serious matter. It is also hard to imagine requiring other employees to work with Mr. Tropak, knowing that he has made and maintained such serious, unfounded allegations about another employee.
In the result the grievance was dismissed.

It is not often that an employee will make an unfounded complaint as was the case in this decision, and evidence of the falsehood will seldom be so obvious.  However, in order to ensure that action can be taken in the event of a false complaint, it's important to be prepared:
  • Make sure you're workplace harassment and/or violence policies expressly provide for sanctions for fabricated or bad faith complaints;
  • Ensure investigations are conducted in a thorough manner.  The investigator should take all reasonable steps to resolve any inconsistencies in the complainant and respondent's accounts;
  • Whenever possible, assign the inquiry to an investigator who will be perceived as unbiased.  In appropriate circumstances, consider retaining a third-party to conduct the investigation where there is a lot of history with the complainant, the respondent(s) or both.
By exercising a degree of due diligence, an employer can greatly improve the likelihood of being able to address false claims when they arise.

Do you need advice on conducting workplace investigations?  Need an experienced investigator?  Contact Lance Ceaser for expert assistance.


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