Trinidad and Tobago – Industrial Court upholds a bank’s decision to dismiss a JW elder for confidentiality breaches
In September 2017, the Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago upheld an employer’s decision to dishonorably dismiss a Jehovah’s Witness employee who disclosed confidential information belonging to the employer.
This employee had stumbled upon sexually explicit material of another Jehovah’s Witness stored on the employer’s property and shared it with local congregation elders.
For the purposes of this article, we will not name the Jehovah’s Witness female colleague. In this Part 1, we would discuss the judgement of the Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago.
The facts: According to the Court’s judgement between the Banking Insurance and General Workers Union (the Trade Union representing the Jehovah’s Witness employee, BIGWU) and First Citizens Bank (the Bank, the employer, FCB) dated July 28th 2017 (BIGWU vs FCB), Mr. Sheldon Johnson, a local congregation elder, was employed in an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) capacity in the ICT Department of a local major bank, First Citizens Bank.
During the execution of his duties at the bank on August 29, 2012, Mr. Sheldon Johnson accidentally stumbled upon sexually explicit material/footage, stored on a back-up hard drive, of another Jehovah’s Witness female colleague (fellow worker) engaging in sexual acts with a man, who was not her husband. Who stored this footage there and when, is unclear. The only possible reason is that the location of the back-up hard drive was chosen as the last place anyone hunting for the footage would look, especially any Jehovah’s Witness employee.
Mr. Johnson subsequently approached the Jehovah’s Witness female colleague on September 03, 2012 regarding the footage “to assist her in restoring her relationship with Jehovah”. She became upset and told him that “everything that happens here, stays here” and stated that she would report the matter to the police. The Jehovah’s Witness female colleague thereafter reported the incident to her supervisors.
In a letter dated October 13, 2012 to his Trade Union, and prior to his disciplinary hearing in November & December 2012, Mr. Johnson disclosed in explicit terms the incident which demonstrates the fanatical beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He wrote:
“[name of female colleague] and I belong to the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Under the rules of conduct of our organization, such acts as described above are prohibited. We Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that such conduct would bring reproach on the name of our holy god Jehovah.
Thus, as an elder in the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in harmony with our well-established code of conduct [inserted: which allows me to keep reports of child rape by fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses confidential and not report these to the police], I privately approached [name of female colleague] on the evening of the 3rd September 2012 in an attempt to remind her of the vows that she made upon her baptism, and to assist her in restoring her relationship with her god Jehovah.
In a humble and discrete a manner as possible, I told her, “[name of female colleague]”, you need to go to your elders and straighten out de matter girl”.
After some time had passed, in harmony with the established code of the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses and in my desire to protect the cleanness of the Christian Congregations [inserted: certainly not my desire to protect the interests of the bank], I informed the elders of the congregation she attended, about her conduct. I told them that I saw sexually explicit material of [name of female colleague] engaging in sexual acts with an unknown male who was not her husband.
I further told them that I was willing to appear in person as a witness to what I had seen.”
In addition, Mr. Johnson provided 3rd parties (three congregation elders) with the bank’s duty roster for his Jehovah’s Witness female colleague, so that the three elders could locate her at home on her day-off to confront her respecting the said video.
This Christian zealotry and fanatical approach stands in stark contrast to his unchristian deposition at the bank’s disciplinary hearing. In a letter dated December 4, 2012, the bank informed Mr. Johnson that the disciplinary hearing was rescheduled from November 19, 2012 to December 5, 2012. Why the rescheduling? The bank stated in the said letter that “before the hearing [November 19, 2012] could begin, you entered and immediately disrupted the proceedings. This was despite explanations of the process from both the Union representatives present and the undersigned. As a result of your continued disruptions, the meeting was eventually aborted”.
The bank subsequently found Mr. Johnson guilty of gross misconduct and that his actions were totally unacceptable to the business interests of his employer. In its termination letter, the bank informed Mr. Johnson, among other things, that contrary to its established policies and procedures, he disclosed confidential information of the bank to an external 3rd party; knowingly accessed computing resources and information on a staff member without authorization; removed another employee’s property without information and copied private information to a [personal] storage device; and infringed on the rights of a staff member.
Mr. Johnson, through his Trade Union, decided to take the Bank before the Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago. His grounds for appealing to the court, was:
- That the Employer (the bank) charged the Worker (Mr. Johnson) without allowing him any opportunity to show that there was no basis to prefer such charges.
- That the Employer had already prejudged the matter when it decided to lay such charges against the employee.
- That the employer by asking the Worker to state why it should not take disciplinary action against him, showed apparent bias in respect of its refusal to identify and show to the Union (who was representing Mr. Johnson) evidence it relied on to lay such charges.
- That the Employer denied the employee’s request to have the meeting postponed in order that adequate time be given to him to prepare for such hearing and to gather information/facts to prove that the Employer acted in a biased manner in initiating disciplinary action against him.
The Industrial Court issued its ruling on July 28th 2017 and upheld the Bank’s decision to dismiss Mr. Johnson. According to the court documents, the following are the reasons given for upholding the Bank’s decision:
- There is a time and place for everything under the sun and the workplace is not one for applying or practicing the principles of one’s religious persuasion. There is a difference between observance and practicing one’s faith at the workplace; the former may be permitted but not the latter.
- For each religious persuasion to be allowed to be practiced and observed without some control, can lead to a workplace being not conducive to work and devoid of peace, stability and tranquillity. For all religions to hold the view that they are paramount is a recipe for confusion and circumstances which are contrary to the principles of good industrial relations practices.
- Mr. Johnson went beyond his official duties and disclose information to 3rd parties due to his religious persuasion and without permission is a different matter that requires stern disciplinary action
- By his demeanor and testimony, Mr. Johnson was adamant that he was right to disclose the information to the elders of his church. His defense was therefore based on his religious persuasion. That defense could not be accepted in our industrial relations system as any worker could put forward such defense in response to an act of misconduct and expect to be exonerated.
- Mr. Johnson’s disposition and the elders’ visit to the home of the female colleague are supportive of the fact that he used the information of a fellow worker and of the Employer contrary to the Employer’s policies.
BIGWU vs FCB was subsequently published on the website of a major local news channel (CCN TV6) and drew comments from local non-Jehovah’s Witnesses, former Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself and local Jehovah’s Witnesses. The comment of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses really highlights that the zealotry, fanatical thinking and behavior is certainly not isolated to just one member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. One local Jehovah’s Witness, Mr. Isaac Cruickshank commented:
Put alur self [yourselfs] in the husbands’ shoes. If john came to you with the information he found about your wife or husband having sex with someone else won’t you thank him for getting that information for you? And it’s not like john went looking for information on Jane he stumbled over it. And he approach her first and she didn’t say it wasn’t her she said stay out her business so she was doing wrong. So that bank manager or whoever fire the wrong person. John did nothing wrong. And I think them focusing on the wrong issue with the religion thing. If you in a religion or believe in god and does read your Bible it clearly says that adultery is wrong in god’s eyes so go check your Bible and stop coming down on john for wanting to do what’s right in God’s eye’s. That’s what’s wrong with the world today they know what’s right but just chose to say its not their business when they see wrong taking place smh its sad very sad.
Instead of expressing concern and sympathy that his fellow brother lost his “good bank job”; that the possibility of him finding any further employment is slim and that his brother had infringement on the basic rights of his co-worker, Mr. Cruickshank was more concerned about practicing his religion in the workplace; his religious persuasion of what is right and wrong trumped best workplace practices and protocols; and further condemned the world for failing to do what is right according to the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He further blamed the female bank employee and maintained that the bank fired the wrong person as “John did nothing wrong”.
Mr. Cruickshank completely refused to acknowledge the valid reasons for the court’s decision and gives anyone the impression that he did not read or understand the website’s article. His comments validate the statement made in BIGWU vs FCB when it said “For all religions to hold the view that they are paramount is a recipe for confusion and circumstances which are contrary to the principles of good industrial relations practices.”
Mr. Johnson thought that he could have used the get-out-of-jail card of freedom of religion to hoodwink the Industrial Court, thinking that the local culture of religious tolerance and the inappropriateness of criticizing someone’s cherished religious beliefs, that the Industrial Court would given precedence to his fanatical religious beliefs.
Instead, the judgement of BIGWU vs FCB is a precedent and is consistent with the statement of Irwin Zalkin before the Supreme Court of the United States, in Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., vs J.W., A Minor., “Freedom of religion does not exist to provide religious institutions with a free pass to operate outside of the law”.
In Part 2 of this series, we would look at the fanatical approach of Jehovah’s Witnesses to this issue of confidentiality, particularly in the workplace, including the review of a Watchtower article.
***Lester Somrah is a Senior Public Officer with 20 years of experience in the Public Service in Trinidad and Tobago and has worked in environments that required confidentiality.