April Fools’ Day Edition – When Jokes = Just Cause

March 29, 2021 − by Andy Pushalik − in General − Comments Off on April Fools’ Day Edition – When Jokes = Just Cause

Each year pranksters around the world mark the arrival of April with the annual “celebration” of “April Fools’ Day”. While laughter remains the best medicine, mischief and horseplay can lead to unintended consequences and severe discipline in the workplace.

A Wake-Up Call Gone Wrong…

A long-service employee working at a petrochemical industrial facility claimed that two of the company’s younger staff were sleeping on their shift when they had no immediate duties to perform. The employee had previously set off firecrackers in the area outside the screening office and in the cafeteria to “wake them up”.  As a further prank three days later, the employee entered a safety sensitive area containing highly explosive hydrogen gas and threw two firecrackers near the two young staff, which “scared the hell out of them”.  Luckily, no major damage or injury occurred, but the firecracker incidents were a major safety issue. As a result, the employer terminated the employee’s employment. The employer’s termination decision was subsequently upheld at arbitration with the arbitrator holding that there were insufficient mitigation circumstances to offset the “egregious, even outlandish nature of the grievor’s ‘firecracker’ actions.”[1]

A Recipe for Disaster…

An employee, R.A., brought some homemade banana bread to work to share with his colleagues.  Unknown to some of those who ate it, R.A. had laced the banana bread with marijuana.  One employee, L.S., found the banana bread “enjoyable even if the appearance was rather intriguing” and had seconds. Noticing some green flakes, L.S. asked “is it customary to add a bit of parsley when baking banana bread?”, to which  another employee who was in on the prank replied “[R.A.] probably used green bananas”.  Several employees became giddy, but a few hours later L.S. collapsed and began convulsing. He was ultimately transported to the local hospital by ambulance. Fortunately, L.S. was not seriously injured and was released from hospital a few days later.

After a brief investigation, the company issued 20 day suspensions to the employees involved in this dangerous prank. However, one employee, W.A., grieved the suspension on the basis that she had not been involved in the planning of the prank. W.A. alleged that she had only became aware of the contents of the banana bread after L.S. finished his second piece. The Arbitrator accepted that W.A. had not baked the banana bread, nor did she have anything to do with it being brought to the workplace. She also did not offer the banana bread to L.S. Still, the Arbitrator ruled that W.A. had known of the contents of the banana bread well before L.S. ate his two pieces. While she was not the mastermind behind this prank, the Arbitrator concluded that W.A. had nonetheless gone along with a prank which could have potentially had tragic consequences.  As a result, the Arbitrator concluded that W.A. should receive a suspension (albeit reduced to 10 days).[2]

False Alarm…

In the midst of an international alert about organizations receiving anonymous letters containing anthrax powder, an employee working for the City of Calgary (the “Grievor”), placed white foot powder in a City of Calgary envelope and secretly placed the envelope in a co-worker’s lunchbox. The intended target never found the envelope so the Grievor revealed the intended prank to the target employee who then removed the envelope from his lunchbox and threw it in a nearby waste basket. Sometime after the envelope was thrown in the waste basket, another employee found the envelope containing the white powder and placed it on the desk of a trades foreman. The trades foreman became concerned and phoned the target employee whose name was on the envelope. The target employee told the trades foreman that he had seen the envelope and thrown it in the waste basket – the target employee did not tell the trades foreman that the Grievor was the source of the envelope or that the envelope contained harmless foot powder. The trades foreman’s level of concern continued to rise and he ultimately called Calgary’s Fire Department’s Hazardous Material unit who quickly arrived at the municipality’s offices with emergency medical crews and police. It was only then that the prank was fully revealed to all involved.

The City issued the Grievor a 10-day suspension. The suspension was later reduced at arbitration to 5-days owing to the Grievor’s long service and the fact that he had never been previously disciplined.[3]

Takeaways for Employers

The absence of a malicious intent will not save an employee who has engaged in conduct which violates company policy. Similarly, the fact that an ill-conceived prank does not result in damage or injury will not always be enough to shield an employee from dismissal. Indeed, as the employees in the cases above found out, when taken too far, practical jokes can constitute just cause for significant discipline, up to and including termination of employment, and that is no laughing matter.

[1] Sulzer Metco (Canada) Inc. v. C.E.P., Local 530A, 2009 CarswellAlta 2308 at para. 75.

[2] Canada (Treasury Board) v. Aucoin, 1988 CarswellNat 1661.

[3] Calgary (City) and ATU, Local 583 (Slupski), Re, 2002 CarswellAlta 2433, 73 C.L.A.S. 14.

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