Lengthy suspension appropriate for long-term employee’s first offence: Board

Employee without previous discipline treated customer poorly on the phone and talked about it with co-workers afterwards
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 05/27/2015

A 20-day suspension was an appropriate level of discipline for a long-term employee’s serious misconduct, the Ontario Grievance Settlement Board has ruled.

Daniela Basta was a customer care representative at a Service Ontario call centre, mostly working on the health line for the Ontario Ministry of Health. She was hired by Service Ontario in 1995 and had a clean disciplinary record.

Basta and her fellow customer care representatives on the health line received calls from people looking for health advice and were expected to answer calls in a prompt, courteous, and patient way and provide accurate information to callers. Customer service was important to Service Ontario as it wanted to ensure the public viewed it as a caring organization with quality customer service. The organization conducted client surveys four times a year to ensure that people were happy with its level of service and expectations were exceeded.

On June 30, 2014, Basta spoke inappropriately to a customer calling the health line seeking treatment for mental health issues, without provocation by the caller. Basta didn’t bring the incident to the attention of management and continued to talk about it to her co-workers for days afterwards. When she spoke about it, she didn’t show any regret or remorse about how the call went down.

Nearly three weeks later, on July 18, Service Ontario management learned of the incident and asked Basta about it. Basta acknowledged the incident had taken place but didn’t make any apology or express any remorse.

The operations manager was “deeply disturbed” by how Basta handled a caller who was in a fragile state of mind, without any provocation. He was also worried if the caller told people about the call and how it would impact Service Ontario’s image. In addition, he was concerned about how Basta discussed the incident with her co-workers, was unapologetic, and failed to bring the matter to management’s attention. In his mind, this made it likely Basta would do it again.

Service Ontario decided a 20-day unpaid suspension would be appropriate discipline and provided Basta with written notification on Aug. 14. Basta responded by acknowledging her behaviour was inappropriate and apologized. However, the next day the union filed a grievance claiming the suspension was too harsh since it was an isolated incident and the only discipline on Basta’s record.

Basta testified she made a “big mistake,” demonstrated a lack of professionalism, and “should not have let the caller get under her skin.” She acknowledged she didn’t follow Service Ontario standards and showed poor judgment when she didn’t tell management about the incident. She also said if she acted that way again, her employment should be terminated. However, she felt with her length of service and record, a 20-day suspension was too much.

The board noted both Service Ontario, the union and Basta agreed her conduct was serious. It found Service Ontario had “a valid business interest in having its staff interact with the public in a professional, courteous, civil, and accurate matter,” and Basta’s conduct went against this interest.

The board found that at no point in the wake of the incident did Basta show any remorse for her conduct, until she was disciplined. This made it reasonable that the level of discipline fall in the upper part of the possible range of what can be considered reasonable. Since the 20-day suspension fell within that range, the board found no reason to change it.

“The quantum of discipline imposed makes clear that the misconduct was serious, yet falls short of termination, thereby recognizing the application of mitigating factors as set out in the disciplinary letter of Aug. 14, 2014,” said the board. See OPSEU and Ontario (Ministry of Government and Consumer Services) (Apr. 1, 2015), D. R. Williamson – V-Chair (Ont. Grievance Settlement Bd.).

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