Accessing Confidential Document Justifies Employee’s Termination for Cause

Termination for Cause Woman Dismissed

In Steel v. Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, the British Columbia Supreme Court determined that an employer who terminated a long term employee for inappropriately accessing a confidential document in another employee’s personal folder was justified in terminating the employee for cause.

The employee, Susan Steel (“Ms. Steel”), was a Helpdesk Analyst in the IT Department who had been employed by the employer, Coast Capital Savings Credit Union (“CCSCU”), for approximately 21 years. As Helpdesk Analyst, Ms. Steel had access to all documents and files in the company so that she was able to perform her duties, which included providing internal technical assistance to the employees of CCSCU. Ms. Steel also had access to the “Personal Folders” that were assigned to each employee, being a place where employees could store confidential information relating to their employment with CCSCU. A protocol was established by CCSCU to govern the access of a Personal Folder by a helpdesk employee. The protocol stated that helpdesk employees, including Ms. Steel, could only access a Personal Folder if permission was first granted by the owner of the Personal Folder or if authorized by the Vice President of Corporate Security. In addition, Ms. Steel’s job description included the requirements that she abide by all policies regarding professional conduct, be a positive role model, lead by example, help to maintain the security of the premises as well as information and respect the privacy and confidentiality of all customer and employee information at all times. One day Ms. Steel accessed a document contained in the Personal Folders of an employee despite the fact that she had not been given permission by the employee or authorized by the Vice President of Corporate Security. Ms. Steel accessed the document for personal reasons that were unrelated to her duties. When CCSCU discovered that Ms. Steel had inappropriately accessed the document and confronted her, Ms. Steel admitted to her wrongdoing as well as her awareness that she was not authorized to access the file. As a result of Ms. Steel breaching CCSCU’s protocol, CCSCU terminated Ms. Steel’s employment for cause and Ms. Steel commenced an action against CCSCU seeking damages for wrongful dismissal.

The Judge determined that Ms. Steel’s actions were in violation of CCSCU’s policies; she did not have permission to access the employee’s file, of which Ms. Steel was aware, and she accessed the documents for her own purposes, not as part of the fulfillment of her duties. Accordingly, the Judge agreed that the employer was justified in terminating Ms. Steel for cause despite her more than 20 years of service.

Impact of Decision on Employers

This case demonstrates the importance of implementing and enforcing policies in the workplace. If an employee violates a workplace policy, grounds may exist to terminate the employee for cause, even if that employee is a long service employee. Including expectations in an employee’s job description is also a good way for employers to ensure those expectations are communicated to employees and may also be relied upon to establish cause if the expectations are not met by the employee. Experienced Employment Law lawyers can assist employers in the creation and implementation of such policies and job descriptions, as well as to provide advice on a case by case basis when incidents arise in the workplace.

Impact of Decision on Employees

Employees should pay careful attention to policies as well as expectations set out in job descriptions as a violation of these terms may lead to the employer being justified in terminating the employee for cause and without any notice. This may be the case for short term as well as long term employees. Although it is generally difficult for employers to successfully prove that grounds exist to terminate an employee for cause, in some instances the violation of a workplace policy, even if it is the first incident of misconduct, may be sufficient for an employer to establish cause. Employees should consult with an Employment Law lawyer if such an incident arises at work to obtain proper advice.

Minken Employment Lawyers is your Canadian source for expert Employment Law advice and advocacy on today’s employment law issues. Whether you are an employer or employee, we can help. Contact us to see how.

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