Properly investigate or don’t terminate
Bruce had lived at a men’s shelter of last resort for a number of years. He was 75 years old and had been a boxer in his youth. Whether it was as a result of his past career or dementia, Bruce was easily confused and agitated.
The policy at the shelter was that if you had any source of income you had to pay part to the shelter each month to stay there. Bruce had an unfortunate habit of carrying his money around in his hand and counting it constantly. He was extremely vulnerable and often robbed. He might not remember being robbed the next day or anything that had happened even hours before. Sometimes he showed up for his meals twice having forgotten that he had eaten.
All of the staff were aware of Bruce’s challenges. Although Bruce did not know it, they were never going to put him out on the street. Bruce would become agitated if he did not get his monthly receipt for having paid his maintenance fees. Often he would think he had paid when in fact he had lost his money.
Abdul had worked at the men’s shelter for 15 years. He was the shift leader and one of the only people at the facility that Bruce would let near him for bathing and de-licing. On a number of occasions Bruce became extremely upset and agitated because he thought he had paid his maintenance fees and did not have a receipt. To calm him down, Abdul would write him a handwritten receipt even though the money was never received. One month Bruce did hang onto his money long enough to pay and got a receipt that looked different from the ones Abdul had given him. He showed the old ones to one of the workers and an investigation was launched. Abdul explained right away that they were receipts for money that was never received. They were issued simply to calm down Bruce and avoid unnecessary suffering and anxiety. Abdul explained that Bruce did not see where he lived as a men’s shelter but rather his home. The thought of getting kicked out caused panic attacks.
While he was away on vacation Abdul received a telephone message from one of the Managers indicating that he should not return to the men’s shelter and that he wasn’t wanted there.
When Abdul sued for wrongful dismissal it came out at trial through a number of former and current colleagues that he was one of the most respected workers at the shelter. As a shift leader he did not spend his days in the office but rather on the floor working with clients.
The trial judge found that the employer’s investigation before terminating Abdul was woefully inadequate. One question they could never answer was why Abdul would have issued a receipt in his handwriting for money he intended to steal. It is clear the judge was struck by Abdul’s evident empathy and humanity when dealing with his clients. No doubt that played into the judge’s decision to award Abdul 18 months pay in lieu of notice which on it's own totalled $105,000.00. The judge found that Abdul’s termination was based on unfounded allegations and unproven suspicions after an incomplete investigation that was insensitively and unfairly conducted. The employer should have foreseen that their behavior towards Abdul would cause him mental distress and he was awarded another $15,000.00. By the time of the trial 7 years after Abdul’s termination he was only earning half of what he used to make and it had taken a long time to find work. The judge ordered a further $50,000.00 as a result of the bad faith treatment of Abdul by his employer and it's resulting loss of income.
Employers who are going to terminate a long term exceptional employee for unproven allegations of theft should watch their step. It is all too easy to fall into a money pit.