A recent decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia underscores that courts will view any breach of an employee’s right to privacy and confidentiality in the workplace as a serious infraction.
In Steel v. Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, the plaintiff was employed on the Helpdesk where she had access to confidential information, including personal folders of other employees. The employer had policies in place regarding access to private and confidential information, including a protocol to be followed by Helpdesk employees when they needed to access the personal folders in order to provide technical assistance. The plaintiff was aware of these policies.
When the employer learned the plaintiff, a 20 year service employee, had accessed confidential information contained in a personal folder without following the protocol in place, it terminated her employment on the basis that her actions constituted a severe breach of trust. The Court upheld that termination, finding that as a member of the Helpdesk, the plaintiff was in a position of “great trust” and she worked for an employer (a credit union) that operated in an industry where trust was of “central importance”. It stated:
 It was not practicable for Coast to monitor which documents Ms. Steel accessed and for what purpose. The employer had to trust Ms. Steel to obey its policies and to follow the protocols. It had to trust Ms. Steel to only access such documents as part of the performance of her duties and to follow the protocols when she did so. Such trust was fundamental to the employment relationship in relation to Ms. Steel’s position. It was, to use the language of Iacobucci J. in McKinley, “the faith inherent to the work relationship” that was essential to this employment relationship.
The willingness of the Court to uphold the cause termination of a 20 year employee for a violation of the employer’s policies sends a strong signal that courts will not hesitate to enforce and apply clearly drafted employer privacy and confidentiality policies, in order to protect confidential information.