Why Not to Let Conflicts Get out of Hand

Financial Post: Wednesday, June 25, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Duke Defaria assumed after being insulted and fired that his ordeal was over. He never expected his boss to threaten to “kick the guts out of him” and then deny he had been dismissed.

After seven years with XTRA Canada, Defaria was the Kitchener branch manager. However, his boss, Clarence Morrison, soon began to make his life miserable.

To close a sale, Defaria needed Morrison’s approval. But Morrison’s habit of delaying pricing information strained their relationship. Defaria complained to the company’s ethics committee.

The committee rejected his complaint faulting poor communications. Although XTRA had a policy requiring all complaints be confidential, human resources disclosed Defaria’s complaints to Morrison.

Eight days later, Morrison conducted Defaria’s annual performance review. In it he criticized Defaria’s performance and removed one of his largest accounts. Defaria suspected it was reprisal for his complaint and he notified HR.

He was told if he could not resolve his differences with Morrison, he should consider finding another job. Morrison again summoned Defaria to a meeting, in which he unleashing a profanity-laced tirade for Defaria going over his head to complain about him. Morrison then fired him. Defaria refused to take any more abuse and walked out.

Morrison, however, followed Defaria to the parking lot, and threatened to “kick the guts out of him.” As Defaria got into his car, Morrison added “Hey Duke, you quit. I didn’t fire you.” The company followed up with a letter threatening Defaria with job abandonment if he did not return to work in two days. Defaria sued for wrongful dismissal.

Dismissing the employer’s defence that Defaria had intended to quit, Mr. Justice Fletcher Dawson of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found Defaria had been abused by Morrison and the situation had culminated in his firing.

Morrison’s denials of having sworn at Defaria or ever informing him he was fired were disbelieved. The Court noted, Morrison had every motive to falsify events because he did not have the authority to dismiss Defaria.

Outraged over Defaria’s mistreatment and XTRA’s refusal to provide a letter of reference, the Court awarded wrongful dismissal damages, as well as bad faith damages.

Ignoring this conflict carried an expensive price tag. Basic principles of human resources management are underscored in this case:

  • Institute a complaint mechanism for employees so they can freely express concerns about management without fear of retaliation;
  • Internal policies should be more than window-dressing: Where confidentiality is promised, it should be scrupulously followed;
  • HR must act as impartial arbiters between staff and management, not as a mouthpiece for the company;
  • Complaints of mistreatment should be looked into immediately; not left to fester;
  • Don’t hesitate to provide an accurate letter of reference.