Saskatchewan Court of Appeal: Overstating qualifications in job application is cause for dismissal

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In a decision issued on March 15, 2002, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld a decision of a trial judge that misrepresenting one’s qualifications in a job application is cause for dismissal. The case, O’Donnell v. Bourgault Industries Ltd., concerned a man who applied for a position as human resources manager. In his letter of application, Lyle O’Donnell presented himself as a consummate human resources professional with 22 years of experience in managing large work forces and expertise in a wide range of human resource functions.

Management was suitably impressed with O’Donnell’s résumé and it soon offered him a position, along with 75 percent of his relocation costs. The employer’s president wrote O’Donnell a letter in which he described the group of senior managers that O’Donnell would be working with as “extremely competent, high performing, down to earth team players”, and expressed confidence that O’Donnell would “fit right in and enjoy the challenge of working with these people immensely”.

However, after five months on the job, O’Donnell was dismissed. The dismissal was cordial: O’Donnell was told he was not working out, and was offered $10,000 in severance. The trial judge hearing his wrongful dismissal action observed that O’Donnell did not live up to the expectations of the senior management team. Rather than working in concert with others, the judge noted, O’Donnell set about devising his own projects and “imposing his views on everybody else”. The evidence indicated that he created more work for his immediate supervisor rather than relieving him of any. The trial judge summed up the evidence regarding O’Donnell’s qualifications as follows:

    “I find that O’Donnell overstated his qualifications when he applied to work for Bourgault. Both his letter and his résumé misrepresent his capability for the work he was hired to do. He was given a fair opportunity to adjust and to conform to the style of management desired of him, but for reasons of his own, almost arrogance on his part, he failed to make the adjustment. My belief is that he never possessed the training and ability for the job, and that he had misrepresented his ability when he applied. … The fact that O’Donnell did not measure up to the qualifications of his own résumé and letter of application constitute grounds for dismissal.”

The trial judge also rested his finding of cause on another ground. On the day of his dismissal, O’Donnell informed the employer that he had not been reimbursed for his relocation costs as he had been promised. On inquiring into the matter, management discovered that O’Donnell’s moving costs had actually been paid by his previous employer. The trial judge took the view that this act of dishonesty constituted further cause for dismissal.

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal dismissed O’Donnell’s appeal. It held that the judge’s finding that O’Donnell had misrepresented his qualifications was supported by the evidence and that the judge had made no error of law in holding that there had been just cause for dismissing O’Donnell.

In Our View

Readers of FOCUS are advised to exercise caution if attempting to rely on misrepresentation of qualifications as cause for dismissal. Observers have noted that the facts of this case seem to have as much to do with O’Donnell’s not being a “team player” and a poor fit as they do with misrepresentation of his qualifications. Aside from O’Donnell’s apparent inability to work with the group, and his requesting reimbursement for expenses he had not incurred, there is little discussion by either court of the exact extent to which he had engaged in misrepresentation.

Further, readers should recall the effect of the Supreme Court of Canada decision in McKinley v. B.C. Tel, in which the Court expressed the view that “whether an employer is justified in dismissing an employee on the grounds of dishonesty is a question that requires an assessment of the context of the alleged misconduct. More specifically, the test is whether the employee’s dishonesty gave rise to a breakdown in the employment relationship.” (See “‘Unreasonable and unjust’: SCC says not just any dishonest conduct by employee is cause for dismissal” on our Publications page.)

It is unclear whether any exaggeration by O’Donnell as to his qualifications met the test of causing a breakdown in the employment relationship. The fact that the employer initially offered him $10,000 in severance is also an indication that it was prepared to shoulder some of the blame for making the wrong hiring choice, as opposed to having seen itself as the victim of O’Donnell’s misrepresentations.

For further information, please contact Jock Climie at (613) 563-7660, Extension 274.