A recent decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal
provides helpful guidance for employers who are faced with
employees who breach workplace policies regarding the protection of
private and confidential information.
In Steel v. Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, 2015
BCCA 127 (CanLII), the Court of Appeal was asked to consider
whether or not the judge at the summary judgment hearing had erred
when she held that Ms. Steel, a 21 year Information Technology
employee with the Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, was properly
terminated for just cause after she breached company policy to view
a confidential folder belonging to a co-worker. The evidence
established that Ms. Steel had viewed the folder without
authorization and for the likely purpose of assessing whether or
not she was eligible to receive a company parking spot. The company
was also able to show that it had policies that clearly established
a protocol for IT workers who wanted to view materials in
confidential folders and that Ms. Steel had reviewed and
acknowledged the application of this policy to her. Further, Ms.
Steel admitted that she deliberately accessed the confidential
folder. Her position in the summary judgment motion was that this
incident alone was not sufficient to support terminating her
employment for just cause.
The Court of Appeal held that the company did have just cause to
terminate Ms. Steel’s employment. Although Ms.
Steel’s long service with the company had to be taken into
account, it could not excuse her breach of the company’s
policies. The Court of Appeal found that when assessing whether or
not a particular incident of misconduct is sufficient to justify
summary dismissal, the Court must decide whether or not the nature
of the misconduct was reconcilable with a continuing employment
relationship. Applying that analysis to the facts of this case, the
Court of Appeal noted that Ms. Steel worked for an employer that
operated in the financial services industry, an industry in which
trust in employees is of paramount importance. Further, Ms.
Steel’s position as an IT help desk worker gave her
unfettered access to all of the company’s electronic data and
she worked almost entirely without supervision. The company had to
place its full faith in Ms. Steel’s judgment and trust that
she was conducting herself in accordance with its policies. It was
not practical or desirable for someone to monitor her access to the
company’s systems. In light of these facts, the company was
justified in concluding that the trust and good faith that was
required to sustain its employment relationship with Ms. Steel had
been irrevocably broken. Her appeal of the summary judgment
decision was dismissed.
Although not specifically relied upon by the Court of Appeal, we
believe it is notable that the company had written policies in
place regarding privacy and confidentiality in the workplace. It
also had a specific and detailed protocol for IT employees to
follow when they wished to access a folder that was marked as
confidential. It would appear that the company was also diligent
about having employees review and sign off on their policies on an
annual basis. This ensured that when it came time to enforce these
policies and hold Ms. Steel accountable for her breach of
procedure, the company was well-positioned to show that she was
aware of the proper procedure to follow and deliberately chose not
to do so.
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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