Suspicion is no substitute for hard evidence. That is the lesson
Pattison Sign Group learned when it terminated James Winfield, who,
measured by his six figure annual income, was a successful
commissioned sales person at its Edmonton office for nearly 25
When employees had expenses, the Toronto head office couriered
reimbursement cheques to Edmonton where they were left for the
employee on their desk or in their mail slot.
One day, Patricia Sperling, the administrative assistant noticed
the payment for the previous month's $741 office float had not
arrived. This triggered an investigation that revealed the cheque
had found its way into a joint account for Winfield and his
When confronted by Grazia Migliore, assistant controller for the
western region at Pattison Sign Group, Winfield acknowledged there
were unaccounted for monies in his account, which he readily agreed
to repay when asked. He speculated the cheque had been
inadvertently left on his desk and, because he had been owed some
expense cheques, he said he had likely not paid attention to the
fact it was not made out to him when he gave it to his wife to
The explanation did not satisfy Migliore and her boss, Richard
Macina, now senior vice-president and chief financial officer at
Pattison Sign Group. Migliore thought it strange Winfield showed no
surprise the cheque was in his account and had unquestioningly
acceded to the request for repayment. Macina's suspicions
Winfield had misappropriated the cheque were heightened by his
belief no expense claims were owing to Winfield at the time the
After consulting with senior management, it was decided Macina
would meet with Winfield to obtain his version of the events. If
Macina did not find the explanation credible, Winfield would be
handed a letter of termination. Should Winfield's story be
deemed plausible, he would not be dismissed.
More than a month after he had repaid the amount and discussed
the issue, Winfield was summoned to a meeting with Macina but was
not informed of the purpose of the meeting. Blindsided by
Macina's questions, Winfield was unable to allay Macina's
suspicions. True to plan, Macina fired Winfield for breach of trust
and dishonesty during investigation.
Winfield sued Pattison Group for wrongful dismissal.
In rejecting Pattison's defences for just cause for
termination, Justice KG Nielsen of the Alberta Court of Queen's
Bench said he found no cogent evidence Winfield had stolen. It was
conceivable, he said, that Sperling had mistakenly left the cheque
on Winfield's desk or it had been placed in an envelope with a
legitimate expense cheque and went unnoticed. It also turned out,
Mancina was wrong in his belief there were no outstanding expense
The court awarded Winfield hefty damages and legal costs.
Pattison was fortunate punitive damages were not added. Other
courts would have taken a dimmer view of how Winfield was
This decision underscores the cardinal principles that should be
adhered to in dealing with serious allegations of theft and
Be meticulous in your fact finding: Had Macina
known about the outstanding expense claims and cheques, his
suspicions may have been allayed.
Separate investigator from decision-maker: This
assures an unbiased assessment of the findings. Having Macina, who
was already suspicious, wear both hats was a mistake.
Be fair to the accused: Calling an employee to
an interview without advance notice of the agenda will not be
Keep careful records: An employer's
credibility is enhanced when it has documented every discussion and
step in its inquiries.
Seal off the investigation from personalities:
The judge noted that Winfield's manager apparently wanted him
gone and sent an email to Macina to that effect. Curb the
temptation to use suspicions of misconduct as an opportunity to get
rid of an unpopular employee.
Act swiftly: The employer risks fading memories
and having condoned the misconduct if it does not act promptly.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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