Accusations of dishonesty need thorough investigation

Terminating somebody’s employment for dishonesty is a very serious step. Making that allegation carelessly unfairly takes away someone’s livelihood and can also affect their reputation. If they can’t prove your case, the consequences to the employer can be quite expensive.
By the time Bill was fired from his employment, ten years after he started working for a municipality. He was the chief building inspector. One day he was called into his boss’s office and told that questions had arisen with respect to what had happened with four building permit fees. He was not told what properties/owners were involved or what he was alleged to have done. No details whatsoever were provided.
Bill was told that if he agreed to resign immediately, the municipality would not contact the police. Bill wisely refused to resign. He was fired and a complaint was filed with the police. Eventually, Bill was charged and underwent a four-day criminal prosecution that spanned over the course of a year.
Once Bill actually learned the details of what was alleged, he was able to defend himself. One of the building permit fees had been paid by the owner’s son-in-law instead of the owner and had been recorded under that name. Some of the building fees had been paid by the owners at a satellite office that had lost half of their records when the office moved.  Four years before Bill was fired, the township building committee had investigated the last allegation fully and found no wrongdoing.
Bill was found innocent of all charges. Bill sued the employer not only for wrongful dismissal but also malicious prosecution, general and aggravated damages and punitive damages.
At trial, the police officer who laid the charges testified that if he had known about the previous investigation, the lost files and the wrong name being recorded, he would never have laid the charges in the first place.
Although it took many months after Bill was fired for him to be formally charged and then another year to complete the trial, the municipality never told anyone about the previous investigation, missing files or the payment made under a different name. Bill’s lawyer was the one to introduce all of this evidence, which was a complete surprise to the Crown prosecutor.
When questioned, Bill’s boss had no persuasive explanation as to why he didn’t reveal this information to the police when he was filing the complaint or at any time after that. The criminal trial received a lot of publicity and Bill’s reputation had been destroyed. His wife ran a business which was also affected. In the small community in which Bill lived, her business was tarnished by the false accusations. The marriage eventually fell apart.
The judge in the wrongful dismissal case was appropriately outraged by the municipality’s behaviour and awarded Bill twelve months’ pay in lieu of notice. He was also awarded $75,000.00 for general and aggravated damages for intentional infliction of mental distress and social and economic damages. He got $25,000.00 for punitive damages.
Employers who believe they absolutely have the goods on someone and don’t need to hear any excuses should think again. There is never a down side to giving an employee an opportunity to provide an explanation after having been told the full details. Sometimes they will sit there silently and have nothing to say. Sometimes they will start to make up lies which will put more nails in their coffin. On other occasions, however, just when the employer was sure there was no possible justification, employees have an immediate and persuasive explanation that the employer never thought of. I have seen it happen on more than one occasion.
No doubt the amount of money Bill ended up with at the end of this trial was at least in part related to the fact that the employer never even gave him the courtesy of telling him exactly what he was supposed to have done wrong and allowing him to respond.
Employers often make mistakes in termination interviews which are motivated by a desire to avoid confrontation and uncomfortable meetings. They just want things over with quick and dirty. Avoiding tough conversations, however, can come at a steep price.
As published by The Hamilton Spectator, January 23, 2012
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809