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Editorial: Where the law and PR divide

There is doing what is legal.

There is doing what is morally right.

And there is doing what makes sense for reputation management, or in lay terms, for public relations.

Sometimes, these areas overlap.

Other times, they diverge.

Take the case of Merritt v. Tigercat Industries, 2016.

Law Times reports that a judge has ordered an Ontario company to pay 10 months severance to long-time employee Keith Merritt, after it fired him for cause upon learning the 66-year-old was facing two counts of sexual assault against minors.

The case highlights the complexities of labour law, as Superior Court justice Donald Gordon concluded Tigercat did not take the necessary steps to justify dismissal with cause.

Merritt’s case isn’t the first where a company has had to carefully weigh its options after public scrutiny of an employee’s off-duty conduct.

Many a company may balk at keeping an employee on staff accused of socially undesirable and potentially criminal behaviour.

“Tigercat’s position for terminating Mr. Merritt for cause is based on the criminal charges and reputational harm, dishonesty and the cumulative discipline record,” said the ruling.

In this case, Merritt had not been convicted of the charges against him.

“The criminal charges are not associated with Mr. Merritt’s employment and do not involve other employees,” said the ruling.

“There is no evidence as to damage, or potential damage, to Tigercat’s reputation.”

Companies hit with this type of unenviable imbroglio are wise to consult legal counsel before any sudden moves. And therein lies the rub — by the time legal counsel comes in with a sure-footed course of action, the public relations damage may already have been done. In this case, the judge ordered Tigercat to pay more then $41,000 in damages to Merritt.

And, the company has now experienced front-page media coverage of the issue. From a public relations perspective, the verdict is out. Tigercat may feel that by not having Merritt in its employ it’s a win, but the ruling itself is a financial loss for the company.

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