Sep 20, 2012
At one time, dishonesty in employment in any guise (lying on job applications, theft of time, money, or equipment, or fraud) was sufficient to support termination. More recently, arbitrators have required employers to consider the nature and impact of the dishonesty on the employment relationship in determining whether it is the basis for firing. The importance of academic honesty comes to light from time to time when student dishonesty in the form plagiarism or cheating on exams comes to light. Post-secondary institutions tend to respond strongly in such situations; the issue of academic dishonesty applies not only to students, but to professors and academic instructors as well. Two Canadian decisions since the turn of the millennium illustrate this point:
- British Columbia v. Professional Employees’ Assn. (Coopersmith Grievance),  B.C.C.A.A.A. No. 29; and,
- University of Windsor and Faculty Assn. of the University of Windsor (Taboun) (Re) (2011), 112 L.A.C. (4th) 1.
Both cases consider breach of trust in relation to grant money: in Coopersmith, the employee in question was a scientist employed by the BC Ministry of Forests; in Taboun the employee was a tenured professor at the University of Windsor. In both contexts, employee dishonesty regarding research monies was a breach of trust warranting dismissal.
In Coopersmith, the employee was suspended pending an investigation of alleged credit card misuse for work-related expenses. Coopersmith received a four-year / $300,000 grant from the Science Council of BC. Coopersmith was concerned that the grant might be terminated if he was dismissed. Without informing his employer, Coopersmith arranged the transfer of the grant from the Ministry to the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). He also met with the research Chair at UNBC in order to ensure that he could continue to lead the research in a paid capacity with UNBC. During this same period, the Ministry was in contact with the Science Council and was in the process of locating a replacement for the Employee.
The Ministry argued that the Employee’s actions amounted to an appropriation of its contract from the Science Council and that this amounted to a violation of the Code of Ethics for professional foresters as well as the Standards of Conduct for the Public Service. In addition, the Ministry argued that since the Employee was only suspended at the time, he was still employed by the Ministry and his actions breached his duty of fidelity to the Ministry. The arbitrator agreed, holding that the Employee’s actions resulted in the appropriation of the contract for his own gain and this breached his duty of fidelity and warranted termination.
In Taboun, the Employee was involved in falsifying documentation to a grant agency funding one of his PhD candidates. The candidate was applying for an extension of his funding and Taboun provided erroneous information to the grant agency relating to the PhD program requirements to suggest that the candidate would still be completing the requirements for his degree into the following year when he had, in fact, already completed all the requirements when he made the application for an extension. As a result of the misinformation provided by the Employee, a significant amount of money was wrongfully paid to the candidate.
The University reasoned that trust between the institution and the funding agency was crucial. In order to ensure the funds were not misused, the funding agency had to rely heavily on the accuracy of information provided to it by faculty supervising graduate students. Taboun’s actions constituted a material misuse of research funds and was gross misconduct sufficient to justify termination of the Employee.
Underscoring the decision in Taboun, the arbitrator found that the conduct destroyed the trust relationship necessary for employment to continue. Taboun’s conduct was beyond what could be considered normal or acceptable professional shortcomings (such as a poor handling of a dispute with a student or scheduling make-up classes too late in a term). The arbitrator considered the Taboun’s conduct to be significantly more severe and upheld the termination.
Learning: Employers are entitled to have a high degree of trust in their employees who administer funding from third-party sources. The duties of employees who apply for and administer grant funding owe a duty of fidelity to their employers; any misconduct involving such funding can attract grave consequences, such as termination.
by Matthew Walters, Ll.B.
Reprinted with Permission from MacLeod Robinson MacLean