Failure to Investigate Not Fatal to Just Cause Termination
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench’s recent decision in Watkins v Willow Park Golf Course, 2017 ABQB 541, centres around a case of a supervisor who developed unreturned romantic feelings for another employee. The case also contains important lessons for employers on how to address cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Ralph Watkins was employed as the Superintendent of the Defendant Golf Course. In May/June 2011, Mr. Watkins began to develop an infatuation with Ms. Li, an employee working on the grounds keeping crew. As a result of Mr. Watkins’ feelings for Ms. Li, she was given preferential treatment in a number of respects. Nevertheless, Ms. Li made it clear to Mr. Watkins that his affection and hopes for a relationship were not reciprocated.
After being rebuffed, Mr. Watkins’ attitude towards Ms. Li fluctuated from continuing to trying to woo her and becoming abusive. Mr. Watkins’ bullying and abuse included name calling, cursing, aggressiveness, and a continuing stream of inappropriate communications from Mr. Watkins to Ms. Li, both on and off the clock. It reached the point where she feared for her safety.
The Golf Course’s management first became aware of the relationship between Ms. Li and Mr. Watkins when another employee complained of the preferential treatment she was (initially) receiving. In response to this, management directed Mr. Watkins to terminate Ms. Li, or at least to strip her of the title of “Assistant Superintendent”. However, no tangible change occurred.
It was not until several months letter, when Ms. Li wrote a letter of complaint to the entire Management Committee concerning Mr. Watkins' behaviour, that they took action. The Management Committee discussed the situation at a meeting, and interviewed other employees. They also asked Mr. Watkins to respond to the allegations at the meeting, to which he gave a blanket denial. After an hour long meeting, the Management Committee proceeded to terminate Mr. Watkins with just cause, citing:
- Verbal and sexual harassment;
- Insubordination (for failing to terminate or demote Ms. Li per their instructions);
- Mr. Watkins' failure to disclose his relationship with Ms. Li; and
- The impact any relationship could have on other employees.
After his termination, Mr. Watkins sued the Golf Course, arguing that his termination with cause was unwarranted, particularly in light of the Golf Course’s alleged failure to properly investigate Ms. Li’s claims or to allow him a meaningful opportunity to respond to those claims.
The Golf Course alleged that Mr. Watkins’ conduct was so egregious that it warranted termination with cause without the need for investigation or the possibility of rehabilitation. It also pointed to further misconduct amounting to “cumulative cause” as justifying Mr. Watkins’ termination. Such other misconduct included mistreatment of other employees, as well as Mr. Watkins’ management style generally, which included yelling, berating, and cursing at his staff.
The Golf Course’s decision to immediately dismiss Mr. Watkins was ultimately upheld. The Court concluded that Mr. Watkins’ sexual and verbal harassment was sufficient to justify the termination of his employment with cause. In addition to this harassment of Ms. Li, there was also unacceptable verbal harassment of other employees and the overall failure to keep issues with Ms. Li out of the sphere of his other subordinates, effectively poisoning the work environment for all of them. In upholding the termination, the Court did not, however, condone the Golf Course’s handling of the situation. The Court criticized the Golf Course’s actions, including:
- Identifying the failure to perform a formal investigation;
- Critiquing the employer for not allowing Mr. Watkins a longer period of time to respond more meaningfully to the accusations made against him; and
- Noting that nobody from management ever spoke directly to Ms. Li about her allegations.
Notwithstanding all of the issues with the Golf Course’s handling of the situation, the Court held that while an employer may enhance its case for summary termination by conducting a proper and thorough investigation, and thus may also hurt its case by failing to do so, the failure to do so does not automatically preclude a justified termination with cause. The Court found that had the Golf Course conducted an investigation, it would have simply confirmed Ms. Li’s allegations and the information coming from the other employees.
From a practical perspective, the termination of a problematic employee comes with many risks. While an employer’s failure to conduct an investigation will not automatically vitiate a just cause termination, a lack of an investigation or an inadequate one may weaken an employer’s just cause argument. Where there is alleged misconduct and complaints, an employer should avoid taking shortcuts within the investigation and termination process. As demonstrated by this case, an employer should:
- Conduct a formal investigation in a prompt manner – while a formal investigation does not always require an independent investigator, it should provide for procedural fairness, follow any policies and procedures in place, and include a gathering of all information.
- Provide the employee with notice of the concerns and an appropriate period of time to respond to the accusations.
- Speak directly to the complainant and obtain a full picture of the complaint.
If you require advice and assistance with dealing with complaints against employees or in investigating alleged misconduct, Field Law’s Labour & Employment Group is available to assist. Please contact us for further information.