The BC Supreme Court has confirmed the right of an employer to discipline employees who refuse to answer questions about workplace events when the employee knowingly allows his or her silence to damage the employer’s legitimate interests.
In 2006, the Queen of the North ran aground and sank; two passengers are presumed to have died as a result of the incident. BC Ferry Services commenced an investigation but two employees who were responsible for navigating the ship refused to answer questions about the critical period before the ship ran aground unless their answers were kept confidential. The employer suspended the employees and the union grieved. A labour arbitrator dismissed the grievance and the arbitration decision was upheld by the Labour Relations Board. The union then applied for judicial review of the Board’s decision.
The BC Supreme Court confirmed that an employee’s silence in and of itself does not constitute just and reasonable cause for discipline. The Court also confirmed that an exception to this principle arises when an employee knowingly allows his silence to damage the employer’s legitimate business interests. The Court found that the circumstances of this case were extraordinary and that BC Ferry Services had a legitimate interest in determining exactly why the ship ran aground. By refusing to answer questions put to them by their employer, the two employees put the employer’s business interests in safety at risk. As a result, the suspension of the two employees was reasonable.
This decision confirms that employers have legitimate interests in investigating safety incidents and that employees who refuse to cooperate in the investigation of such incidents may face discipline.