Misconduct as a ground for terminating an employment – new case law expected?
Constantly disagreeing with co-workers constitutes a sufficient ground for termination of employment – even when the employee is hardworking and performs the duties well – declares the Helsinki Court of Appeal.
Based on judgment recently handed out, an employee is not protected against disciplinary measures, including termination, only by showing hardworking attitude and good performance in work duties, if the employee's behaviour is, at the same time, endangering the occupational safety of others. The matter is currently pending in the Supreme Court of Finland, which is considering whether to grant a leave to appeal after the court of appeal gave its judgment strongly in favour of the employer.
CONSTANT ARGUMENTS AND THREATENING BEHAVIOUR
The Helsinki Court of Appeal declared in its ruling (HelHO 25.6.2015 935 S14/3060) that the employee's different and strong opinions or different behaviour when compared to others do not as such, constitute a proper and weighty reason for termination. However, the employee may be required to get along with his or her co-workers. Constant arguments and conflicts – as well as violent behaviour – may be considered as a proper and weighty reason for termination, as such behaviour may cause negative work atmosphere, endanger occupational safety and have other negative effects. The fact that the work performance of the employee was good did not affect the employer's right to terminate the employment.
The employee had been involved in four different incidents in the workplace during a seven-month period preceding her termination. In addition, the employee was constantly in disagreement with her co-workers. The court found that the problems caused by the employee had exceeded what can be considered as acceptable behaviour especially when the conflicts were constant and her behaviour was considered threatening by her co-workers.
The employee, on the other hand, alleged that she had been bullied by the employer and her co-workers and was not given a chance to amend her conduct by a prior warning. The court did not find any proof that the employee had been bullied by her co-workers or by the employer. Instead, it was deemed that the employer had genuinely been trying to solve the problems caused by the employee.
EMPLOYER'S RISKS AND OBLIGATIONS
In the end, the employer bears the burden of proof for having a justified ground for termination. The employer is also liable for complying with adequate and fair procedures, including a written warning, before making any final decision on termination. As a consequence for unjustified termination of an employment, the employer may be ordered to pay compensation to the employee in accordance with the Finnish Employment Contracts Act. The maximum amount of compensation equals the salary of 24 months of the employee in question.
On the other hand, the employer must also consider its obligation towards the other employees and their occupational safety pursuant to the Finnish Occupational Safety and Health Act. The employer has a legal obligation to take measures when it notices harassment or other inappropriate behaviour that may cause hazards or risks to the health of its employees. Thus, the employer has a legal obligation to protect other employees from an inappropriate behaviour of one employee.
In case the employer neglects its obligation to take measures when inappropriate behaviour occurs at the workplace, it may also face criminal sanctions.
HARDWORKING IS NOT ENOUGH
The court declared that despite the fact that the employee was hardworking and good at her work, her inappropriate conduct as a whole constituted a proper and weighty reason for terminating her employment agreement in accordance with the Finnish Employment Contracts Act. The employee had been given a chance to amend her conduct by a written warning, but she had continued the inappropriate behaviour, causing hazards to the other employees.
At the moment, the matter is pending in the Supreme Court that is considering whether to grant a leave to appeal. New case law and guidelines would be appreciated as the misconduct and other forms of bad behaviour of employees are repeatedly turning up complicated situations in workplaces.