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The icing on the cake: An unfair investigation into a joke gone viral

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Recently, in the town of Lorette, Manitoba (Pop. 3,208), which is 25 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, a little inside joke made a very big public splash. The medium? Cake icing. The platform? Snapchat. At a time when employees constantly scroll through their IPhone notifications, mean jokes blasted over social media easily infiltrate the workplace.

It all started with a very responsible part-time employee – a high school student that went on to study engineering – at the town of Lorette’s grocery store. In early November 2016, this employee (L.S.) was practicing her cake-decorating skills. She was encouraged to run through these skills on the bakery counter. One day, she wrote the following phrase in three different colours of icing:


“I’m sorry you’re a whore”

To this she added three balloons, and either the Twitter, Snapchat or email address of a friend and fellow employee who was working at the grocery store that evening. She showed the message to this friend and colleague, and asked if she could post it on Snapchat. The friend did not object to her doing so.

One of the 40-50 viewers of this Snapchat post, which included work colleagues, was L.S.’s mother. When L.S.’s mother saw this she “bluntly admonished her daughter” and said that the post was “stupid.” L.S. took it down that evening and apologized to her friend who was referenced in the post. Their friendship withstood this incident.

L.S.’s post was reported to management by another colleague several days later. Soon thereafter, L.S. was called into an investigation meeting with the store manager. In this meeting he asked her the following question: “I’ve been made aware of a posting on social media about an employee from the store. What can you tell me about this?” L.S. said that she did not recall posting anything on Twitter or elsewhere. The store manager had a screen shot of the Snapchat post, but did not show it to L.S. at this time. A week later, the manager provided her with a letter of termination. L.S. grieved it.

In the grievance arbitration, the employer stated that the termination was warranted in part because of L.S.’s dishonesty during the investigation. The Arbitrator found that rather than being dishonest, L.S. simply failed to recall that she had posted a message about their colleague on her Snapchat when asked. There was another aspect the arbitrator did not comment on. For an investigation to be fair, the investigator – in this case the store manager – should have provided her with the allegations levied against her in advance of the interview and, if possible, the documentation relied on for those allegations. Had this occurred, the store manager could have given L.S. an opportunity to respond to her inappropriate-inside-joke-snap-post. Instead, he terminated her.

Although L.S. was reinstated, she did not receive any compensation for the period of time between her termination on November 21, 2016 and the date of the decision on September 11, 2017. The Arbitrator considered this to be an appropriate disciplinary suspension for her inappropriate conduct. For over 10 months, L.S. was without a salary because her conduct was offensive to the store manager and her colleagues.

This case also represents a much broader message about the need for self-awareness when conducting yourself at work. Even when we are joking with our colleagues, those jokes – whether communicated through social media or simply heard aloud in a workplace – can be upsetting to others and have negative repercussions at work. These negative repercussions can lead to investigations and discipline. To avoid these consequences, keep in mind that not everyone shares the same sense of humour – even if they are friends with you on Snapchat.