The Hamilton Spectator
Saturday, May 31, 1997

When your beliefs get you fired

Philip Allister was fired from his computer job.

by Shaun Herron

Philip Allister thought he was doing the right thing when he raised concerns about one of his company's business partners.

He didn't know it would cost him his job.

The 28-year-old computer operator was fired by courier giant United Parcel Services this month when he sent electronic mail to 20 co-workers regarding company negotiations with an Indonesian firm. He's a peace activist and was concerned over UPS's involvement with a nation accused of genocide and human rights abuses.

Allister is now sitting at home with his wife and newborn son, wondering if he'll be able to keep a roof over their heads.

"I feel so bad when I see my wife is upset and there's nothing I can do", said the six-year employee at UPS's depot at Hamilton International Airport. "If I'd known what might have happened, I would have definitely thought twice about sending that e-mail."

That e-mail commented on two bits of UPS-provided information. One was that the company was negotiating with an Indonesian freight carrier. The other was an in-house newsletter saying the company must conduct business ethically at all times.

Allister didn't think the two went together and decided to explain why to five managers, a senior executive, and 14 co-workers. His message detailed allegations of human rights abuses, murder, and political oppression by the government of Indonesia.

" Why, if our company stands for such morals and ethics in its business practices, are we doing business with such a regime?" he asks in the May 5 e-mail. "As employees of an ethical business, it is our duty to all those who built our reputation to stop doing business with the Indonesians."

Allister was suspended May 8, fired May 12, and denied severance. He says he was accused of misusing UPS equipment to promote his own opinions and "stealing" company time. Allister said those offences were added to an April reprimand for calling his pregnant wife from work.

"Yes, my usage of the phone was excessive, but I apologized and explained", he said yesterday as he prepared for a job interview.

"She was pregnant and having complications. She worked days and I worked nights -- we had to keep in touch."

The UPS manager Allister says fired him did not return calls yesterday. Nor did other spokesmen for the company.

Allister has filed a complaint with Labour Canada. UPS is covered by the federal labour code because it transports goods across provincial and international borders. If the complaint is not settled, it will go to an independent adjudicator who must decide whether the man was unjustly fired. The adjudicator can order a series of remedies, including back pay, reinstatement or merely reimbursement of costs.

Allister is also consulting a lawyer.

This case raises the question of what an employee can say at work. Freedom of speech exists in Canada. So does a worker's responsibility to show loyalty to an employer. Where do the two meet?

"Judges are tolerant of free speech", said Hamilton employment lawyer Ed Canning. "It's tolerated -- to the point it becomes incompatible with your obligations."

That means you can't be insubordinate, can't damage your employer's reputation with public criticism, and must not poison the work atmosphere with your comments.

"An employee can offer constructive criticism as long as, at the end of the day, they accept direction", Canning said.

"Employees have brains -- that's what they're employed for."

Fellow lawyer David Ivey wrote in The Spectator recently that there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what will get you legally fired.

"Employees who conduct themselves in a businesslike manner cannot be terminated for cause", he wrote.

"Where, however, the employee has his own personal agenda or offers criticism in a personal or spiteful way, those actions will not be condoned by the court."

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.