Treating one’s colleagues with respect is an ethical obligation for the professional in the performance of his or her duties. This obligation of respect is derived from section 59.2 of the Professional Code:
“No professional may engage in an act derogatory to the honour or dignity of his profession or to the discipline of the members of the order, or practise a profession, carry on a trade, enterprise or business or hold an office or function that is inconsistent with the honour, dignity or practice of his profession.”1
A professional therefore commits an ethical fault if he or she contravenes section 59.2 of the Professional Code. In order to conclude that a professional has transgressed this section, the Council must come to the conclusion that the behaviour reproached is below acceptable behaviour:
“[…] a distinction must be made between desirable and acceptable behavior.” [our translation]2
It is this very important concept that is analyzed in the decision Comptables professionnels agréés (Ordre des) v. Cournoyer3.
In this article, we will explore the various situations, set out in the Cournoyer judgment, in which the actions of Mr. Cournoyer, a member of the Ordre des comptables agréés, working as Auditor General of the City of Trois-Rivières, were considered by the Council to be derogatory to the honour and dignity of the profession. Several charges were laid against Mr. Cournoyer, five of which were under section 59.2 of the Professional Code and section 5 of the Code of Ethics of Chartered Professional Accountants, which imposes an obligation equivalent to section 59.2 of the Professional Code:
“A member shall, at all times, act with dignity and avoid any method or attitude that is likely to damage the profession’s good reputation.”4
Count one – Psychological harassment of his assistant
One day, Mr. Cournoyer goes to his assistant’s office and starts shouting loudly “who’s the boss here? Then he bangs his fists on the desk and says, still to his assistant: “It will take a man here to tell you what to do” [our translation].
At that moment, Mr. Cournoyer’s assistant was afraid. So much so, that she had to leave the office for the rest of the day.
Everyone can be disappointed in the work of a colleague or even angry at the reaction of a colleague. However, it is essential that the professional behaves in a respectful manner at all times in the performance of his or her duties:
“Both professionally and personally, the respondent [professional] must demonstrate respect in his or her dealings with his or her assistant, notwithstanding the situation he or she is facing. 5[our translation].
This event alone allowed the Council to conclude that Mr. Cournoyer was guilty of ethical misconduct, as the accountant disrespected his assistant and behaved aggressively towards her. This behaviour falls below acceptable behaviour and is therefore detrimental to the honour and dignity of the profession, which makes him guilty of a contravention of section 5 of his code of ethics and also of a contravention of section 59.2 of the Professional Code.
Count two and three – Defamation
The assistant explains that she has seen newspaper articles in which Mr. Cournoyer denigrated her. The accountant publicly explains that his assistant is mean and is always picking on him. She testified that she felt the effects of this defamation directly in her workplace, as other employees were discussing the situation in the hallways of the city’s offices.
The assistant also explained that following the psychological harassment complaint she had filed, Cournoyer complained to his colleagues that his assistant was “crazy” for filing a complaint of this magnitude.
The Council explains that a professional’s comments must be evaluated in light of the public’s reasonable expectations of the professionalism that the professional should demonstrate6.
Just as a negative comment does not necessarily constitute disrespect, a professional may criticize another person’s work without it constituting ethical misconduct. Thus, criticism will not be considered ethical misconduct if it is done in a professional and respectful manner.
However, in this case, Mr. Cournoyer’s verbalization of a criticism of his assistant was neither professional nor respectful. For this reason, the Council, under the second count, considers this action to be a breach of professional ethics.
In addition to defaming his assistant, Cournoyer also defamed the City Manager and the former Auditor General. This is the third count. He called his two female colleagues “incompetent and didn’t know how to do their jobs” [our translation], without reason or justification, in newspapers and to other colleagues.
These criticisms, in the Council’s view, were not made in a respectful or professional manner. The comments made by the accountant were not constructive and even showed a condescending attitude from Mr. Cournoyer. For these reasons, the Council finds the accountant guilty of the third count.
Count four and five – Nicknames and misogyny
Cournoyer’s general attitude at work was problematic. This attitude led to the fourth count of giving disrespectful nicknames to his colleagues and the fifth and final count of misogynistic behaviour.
Initially, Mr. Cournoyer had fun giving nicknames to his co-workers. He called one female manager “my princess”, the director of engineering “the great genius”, another manager “little redhead” or “garden gnome”, the director of human resources “the penguin”, the general manager “crooked eyes” and the director of information technology “petit prout irlandais” [our translation].
The Council reiterated that a professional’s right to freedom of expression is not absolute7 and indicated that the accountant’s use of these names was denigrating and damaging to the reputation of the persons who were the victims of these words. Having once again shown a lack of respect for his colleagues, Mr. Cournoyer was found guilty of not having acted at all times with dignity and not having avoided any method or attitude likely to harm the good reputation of the profession.
Secondly, the accountant was also accused of a misogynistic attitude. In fact, several people confirmed the accusations by testifying, among other things, that the “uncle jokes” told by the accountant made the employees uncomfortable because of their very degrading and contemptuous nature towards women.
It is therefore clear in the Council’s mind that such comments should never be made in a professional environment. For this reason, Mr. Cournoyer was found guilty of a fifth breach of ethics in this judgment.
The professional concerned by this decision violated one of his ethical obligations in several ways, from a flagrant lack of respect towards his colleagues to verbal abuse and a cruel lack of consideration for women. It is important to remember that many other situations can be considered to be an attack on the honour and dignity of the profession, and the reverse is also true.
In this regard, the professional in question was acquitted of one count of disrespecting SPCA employees. Indeed, Mr. Cournoyer was disrespectful towards them when he wanted to adopt a dog, and yet, this same type of behaviour, which was considered an ethical fault for the first five counts, is not considered as such for the eighth count8.
The Council explained this decision by the fact that the misconduct committed by Mr. Cournoyer towards the employees of the SPCA was not serious enough to be an attack on the dignity and honour of the profession.
Thus, if we imagine a case where a professional commits a serious fault outside the practice of his profession, could he be found guilty of ethical misconduct because it would be an attack on the honour and dignity of the profession? Does the professional’s obligation to respect extend to all his or her social interactions and relationships, even those outside of his or her work?
There appears to be a tendency for Discipline Councils to answer the latter two questions in the affirmative. For example, in the recent decision Chartered Professional Accountants (Ordre des) v. Blais, another chartered professional accountant was found guilty of ethical misconduct for unprofessionally challenging public health measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic on social networks. We invite you to read the publication written by our team about this decision to learn more about the issue.
However, each case is unique and it is important to keep in mind that such decisions can be appealed to higher courts so that higher authorities can decide on the fair balance between the individual rights of professionals and their ethical obligations.
In this regard, any professional who is the subject of a professional inquiry or a complaint filed with his or her disciplinary board should seek the advice of a lawyer in order to fully understand the principles applicable to his or her particular situation.
Written with the collaboration of Mrs Alexiane Boissé-Leclerc, law student.
1 Professional Code, RLRQ, c. C-26, art. 59.2.
2 Comptables professionnels agréés (Ordre des) c. Cournoyer, 2022 QCCDCPA 12, para. 117.
3 Comptable professionnels agréés (Ordre des) c. Cournoyer, supra note 2.
4 Code of Ethics of Chartered Professional Accountants, RLRQ, c. C-48.1, r.6, art. 5.
5 Comptable professionnels agréés (Ordre des) c. Cournoyer, supra note 2, para. 127.
6 Id., par. 184.
7 Id., par. 222.
8 There were thirteen charges in all, but some are not the subject of this article.