I am being bullied at work by my boss. What do I do?

| September 26th, 2017 | No Comments »

Question: I am being bullied at work by my boss. What do I do?  She yells at me daily.

She has asked me things like; can you read? Are you deaf? Are you dyslexic? Do you know how to spell? If she misplaced something I get yelled at. If a client doesn’t read a document I asked them to read I get yelled at. I have been yelled at and talked down to in front of clients.

I actually have a breakdown every Sunday at the thought of going in on Monday.  I have left work crying numerous times.

What do I do?

Answer: Just like many have learned on playgrounds as children, you have to stand up for yourself and stand up against bullies.  However, as many have also learned, standing up to a bully directly can cause a lot of pain and suffering, and there is usually a better way.

In the context of workplace bullying, there is a better way.  In most cases, you can empower yourself by taking timely and detailed notes of each instance of bullying and, within limits, even recording conversations with the bully.  This is often the first step, as the notes and recordings make it easier for you to explain the situation to your HR department, your bully’s manager, or even a lawyer.  It may also be worthwhile to get a doctor’s note; if the stress is too much to bear, you may be able to take a temporary leave of absence (sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid).

You should also do so knowing that the law protects you from mistreatment in many ways.  Harassment is prohibited by both the Occupational Health and Safety Act and, for certain kinds of Harassment, the Human Rights Code.  Further, if the environment really has become toxic, you may be allowed to leave and start a constructive dismissal claim.

 

At Whitten & Lublin, we have been successfully standing up to bullies and protecting employees for many years.  If you’re experiencing workplace bullying, call us for help!

What is Ethnic Discrimination in the Workplace?

| September 18th, 2017 | No Comments »

Ethnic discrimination occurs when an employee is treated different than his or her colleagues based on their ethnicity in a manner that is unfair.

A person’s ethnicity refers to the national, cultural or religious group(s) to which they belong, or are perceived to belong.  A person’s ethnicity can be shown visually (i.e. if they wear a turban), linguistically, (e.g. if they have a Chinese accent), or it can be difficult to detect.  A person’s ethnicity is associated with their cultural identity, and it can change over time.  In contrast, a person’s race is generally seen as an unchangeable part of their biological makeup.

Ontario’s Human Rights Code prohibits ethnic discrimination in the workplace.  Ethnic discrimination often overlaps with other types of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code, such as race, place of origin, creed and ancestry.

Ethnic discrimination in the workplace can come in many forms, some of which are very commonplace.  A manager who makes fun of his subordinate’s hijab would likely have engaged in ethnic discrimination.  An employee who is denied a receptionist position based the fact she is not proficient in English may have experienced ethnic discrimination.  She could make an application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal claiming discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin.  However, the potential employer could defend against her claim by arguing to the Tribunal that English proficiency is a legitimate requirement for the position.  The Tribunal will closely analyze the claim that English proficiency is required for a position.  In many cases, an employee does not need to have perfect English skills in order to perform the duties associated with a particular position.

Author: Simone Ostrowski, Whitten & Lublin

How to Deal With Workplace Violence

| September 18th, 2017 | No Comments »

It is exceedingly important that businesses have clear policies and procedures in place to address workplace violence, which comply with the statutes that govern workplace violence – including the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.  Under this Act, employers are required by law to prepare a written policy that defines workplace violence, provides examples of it, sets out a clear program for filing internal complaints and investigating them, and describes any other steps the company will take in relation to workplace violence.

Companies may be required in appropriate circumstances to hire an external provider both to train their staff, and to investigate incidents of workplace violence as they occur.  They are also required to provide protection from any workers with a history of violence, and to reasonably protect workers who are at risk of domestic violence.

Because workplace violence is considered a “safety hazard”, workers have a right to temporarily stop performing their duties until the issue is adequately addressed.  Employers will be required to put a safety plan in place to ensure that any risks are limited to the extent legally required.  In some cases, employers may also be expected to provide counseling services, if the workplace violence incident is of a sufficiently serious nature.

Where a company fails to comply with its legal obligations, it is at risk of substantial fines, extra attention from the Ministry of Labour, unhappy employees, reduced productivity, damages for wrongful or constructive dismissal, reinstatement of terminated employees (together with back-wages) and increased legal fees – among other things.

 

Author: Daniel Chodos, Whitten & Lublin

Can attending a white supremacist rally be grounds for dismissal?

| September 11th, 2017 | No Comments »

After several attendees of last month’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., were outed on social media and then quickly fired, Canadian employers are asking, “Can attending a white supremacist rally be grounds for dismissal?”

The answer is yes – but with several caveats.

 Freedom of speech does not translate to freedom from workplace consequences. Canadians are given the right to express their personal views, political preferences or ideologies, whether privately or in public. Although their opinions and behaviour may be perfectly legal, that does not render them immune from workplace discipline or dismissal.

Outside of unionized employees, an employer is well within its legal rights to discharge employees for virtually any reason, or for absolutely no reason at all, as long as a proper severance payment is provided. This is the beauty of Canadian dismissal law; paying severance makes just about any dismissal decision justified.

Technically, there is no difference between firing an employee because he or she identifies with white supremacists and firing that same employee because of restructuring. Neither employee has any right to challenge the basis for termination. And if a severance package is provided, there also should be no difference in the amount required.

The more interesting question is whether firing an employee for attending a rally can be seen as a form of misconduct such that there is just cause for dismissal without any severance at all. This is where dismissal law gets tricky. Termination for any form of misconduct without pay is usually difficult for employers to justify as they first have to prove that the punishment fits the alleged crime. But if the correct conditions are met, it can and should be done.

If an employee is publicly outed on social media for his or her participation at a white supremacist rally, it could be cause for dismissal.

Employers have a legitimate interest in protecting their brand and reputation, especially online. As the mob mentality of social media is now more powerful than ever before, an employee publicly shamed online, even for privately held beliefs, can be indirectly causing damage to an employer’s reputation and putting that employer’s decisions in the spotlight. In the United States, several employers faced extreme backlash when their employees were outed for attending a rally. An employer who does not take action in these circumstances could face far more negative publicity than an employer that takes quick steps to distance itself from that employee.

A more likely case for dismissal without severance is where there is some form of link between an employee’s behaviour and the workplace. Distributing hate propaganda to colleagues, posting flyers or pictures in the workplace or encouraging co-workers to agree with certain ideological beliefs, is a more-clear-cut case to deny severance.

Human-rights legislation across the country states that employers have a legal duty to provide workplaces free from harassment and discrimination, which extends to ensuring the actions of their employees do not create or even potentially create a poisoned workplace. While holding certain views or expressing them privately is not illegal, bringing them into the workplace for others to see and hear is a form of indirect discrimination that could lead to a successful human-rights complaint against both the offending employee and his or her employer.

If other employees refuse to work with an individual who is identified as supremacist, even if on his or her personal time, it could also lead to a court upholding a dismissal without severance. In a recent case, an employee was terminated for misconduct after he was charged for possession of child pornography. In upholding the dismissal, the court found that the charges themselves were so detrimental to the workplace and employee morale that the employer had no other option but to immediately fire him.

What conclusions can we draw?

Employees are clearly allowed to hold personal opinions and views, even racist ones, without fear that their thoughts or prejudices will follow them back to their desk. This by itself it not grounds to dismiss for cause, nor could it ever be. But once these views cause harm or potentially cause harm to an employer’s business interests, no employee should expect that any workplace law would protect them.

Author: Daniel Lublin

Publication: The Globe and Mail

Random Alcohol and Drug Testing Policy: When is this discrimination in Safety Sensitive Workplaces

| August 4th, 2017 | No Comments »

Under human rights law, individuals that suffer from addiction are protected under prohibited grounds of discrimination. For this reason, any policy that has an adverse effect on employees with addictions will have to be a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR).  This means that employees found in violation of such policies will have to be accommodated for up to the point of undue hardship.

For a job requirement or workplace policy to qualify as a BFOR, it first has to rationally connect to the performance of the job. For random and unannounced drug/alcohol testing in a safety sensitive environment, the goal would be that the employees performing the job are doing so under conditions that do not compromise safety. The condition of sobriety definitely rationally connects to the objective of workplace safety. Secondly, the policy has to be implemented with honesty and good faith. In this instance, it is reasonable to believe that random testing is a tool that would contribute towards a safer working environment in safety sensitive workplaces.

Lastly, the policy must be reasonably necessary to accomplish the objective of workplace safety. To establish this, it must be shown that not only is the policy necessary, but that impaired individuals cannot be accommodated without the employer suffering undue hardship. This requires exploring possibilities such as modifying tasks or providing alternative work. For workplace that is safety sensitive, there may not be alternatives to accommodate those unable to perform work in safety sensitive roles. It is always best to consult with an employment law expert when seeking to accommodate with minimal options. At the very least, an attempt must be made by the employer.

In terms of policy, employers should be cautious when implementing random drug testing. Methods of testing that do not measure present impairment will be found to be in violation of human rights. Methods of testing must be able to test for present impairment because this is a direct measure of an individual’s ability to perform while on the job. In the eyes of the law, measuring past impairment discriminates against those with addiction, while providing little indication of their present ability to perform their jobs safely.

When is Domestic Violence an Issue of Workplace Health and Safety

| August 1st, 2017 | No Comments »

It may not be well known, but there are instances where domestic violence is an issue of workplace health and safety. There is situation, therefore, where it is the employer’s responsibility to make sure an employee that is a victim of domestic violence is safe while at work. Violence may take many forms, as domestic violence is an attempt to gain power or control over a person with whom one has an intimate relationship. This may take many forms, such as texting, email, phone or stalking.

Where domestic violence is between two current employees, the employer has an unquestionable responsibility to ensure that the victim is free from violence while at work. This may include modifying tasks to ensure that the individuals do not cross each other during the course of work, limiting or eliminating communication between the employees involved, or even termination if it is impossible to ensure the victim’s safety and well being. In essence, domestic violence, in this case, would be viewed equally to workplace violence and should elicit the same response from the employer.

In the instance that the aggressor is not an employee, the employer still has a responsibility to ensure that the employee is safe while at work. This may include screening the employee’s calls, providing a photo of the abuser to security and reception, notifying security personnel in in case the aggressor appears at the workplace, ensuring that immediate help is called upon if physical contact is attempted at work, and providing a personal work plan to assist the victim. It is also important to ensure that the employee is safe during their route home after work, as the abuser may anticipate contact during this time. Allow the employee to express their concerns so that a meaningful plan may be developed.

Under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers are required to implement domestic violence policy and have a plan in place to minimize the impact of domestic violence if it becomes workplace issues. The program should include training to identify indicators, methods of reporting, educational materials and so forth. It is in the employers best interest to have an effective policy that goes beyond minimal requirements, as domestic violence may impact job performance, attendance, and workplace morale. Contact an employment law expert to ensure that workplace policies regarding domestic violence are current, and prevention programs are properly in place.

Can A Manager be Disciplined for After-Hours Conduct of Sexual Harassment?

| June 20th, 2017 | No Comments »

It may be commonly perceived that unacceptable conduct in relation the workplace only extends as far as the physical workplace or workplace events. Although questionable in certain circumstances, when the misconduct involves sexual harassment and is perpetrated by a managerial figure, prohibited workplace conduct may extend beyond the workplace itself to protect employees from unwanted and offensive conduct.

A case that illustrates the above is Simpson v. Consumers’ Association of Canada (OCA 2001). Simpson was an Executive Director for Consumers’ Association and was terminated for sexual harassment. The allegations against Mr. Simpson include propositioning a secretary, going to a strip club with a co-worker, having an open sexual affair with an assistant causing her to resign, and inviting workers to his cottage to swim unclothed among other things. Consumers’ Association terminated Simpson upon discovering the allegations and misconduct. Simpson then claimed unjust dismissal.

Simpson did apologize for the conduct in the workplace and claimed that the other misconduct happened outside of the workplace. However, the court found that there were workplace connections to the misconduct that took place outside of the workplace events. The court stated that sexual harassment is an objective standard which includes conduct that ought to reasonably be known as unwelcome. Given Simpson’s position in the company, he should have known his conduct was unwelcome and would receive adverse consequences. It is also important to note that the absence of sexual harassment policy in this workplace did not work in Simpson’s favour. Being in an executive position, sexual harassment policy could have easily been implemented by Simpson. This reaffirms the courts position on zero tolerance on sexual harassment absent of workplace sexual harassment policy.

Overall, sexual harassment perpetrated by an individual in a managerial position outside the workplace will have consequences. The fact that the conduct occurs outside the workplace does not protect managers or senior personnel from workplace discipline. The objective standard adopted by the courts ensures that sexual harassment by a managerial figure will not be tolerated outside the workplace, as this ought to be known to be unwelcome behaviour and could be subject to consequences.  If subjected to sexual harassment outside the workplace, it is always important to make the appropriate personnel aware and seek legal advice.

Important Information for Conducting Criminal Background Checks for Condition of an Employment Offer

| June 7th, 2017 | No Comments »

Employers must treat criminal record checks similarly to other protected grounds of discrimination such as race, religion and so forth. A criminal conviction for which a person has been pardoned is a protected ground of discrimination under human rights law.  Any workplace policies that inadvertently have an adverse affect upon individuals with pardoned convictions must be dealt with accordingly.

Hiring Process

An employer concerned about employing an individual with a past criminal record may request a perspective employee to undergo a criminal background check. However, this should be done with proper precautions. It is advisable to make the background check a requirement once a conditional offer has been made. This would avoid any allegations that hiring practices contravened human rights law upon a discriminatory ground. For instance, requesting a criminal background check after extending a conditional offer avoids the possibility of a hiring decision being influenced by past criminal offences.

Criminal Record Policy

Having a workplace policy that prohibits employment of those with past convictions for which a pardon has been granted is a violation of human rights law. However, there is an exception if, and only if, the workplace policy is a bona fide occupational requirement (“BFOR”). This means that under no circumstances is it possible to employ an individual with a past particular criminal conviction  without suffering undue hardship as an employer.

This is a difficult standard to meet. At the very least, a workplace policy that prohibits a past conviction should be limited to past convictions that closely relate to the job. For instance, if the nature of employment deals with handling sensitive financial information, then having a policy that disqualifies individuals based on recent past convictions of financial fraud would likely be reasonable.

Conclusion

When seeking to enforce or implement workplace policy that deals with criminal record checks, it is important to take all necessary precautions as this is a human rights matter. The policy should relate to past convictions closely related to employment and take into consideration the time past since the conviction took place. It is always best to seek consultation from an employment lawyer when dealing with human rights matters.

At what point is the duty to accommodate no longer necessary for an employer under human rights law?

| May 3rd, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Under human rights law, an employer must accommodate an employee if a workplace policy or job requirement effectively discriminates against an employee on a prohibited ground.  The most common grounds of discrimination within the workplace include religion, family status and disability. Other grounds of discrimination include race, colour, sexual orientation, age, sex, and others. Under human rights law, an employer must accommodate an employee if a workplace policy or job requirement effectively discriminates against an employee on a prohibited ground. The policy or job requirement does not have to overtly discriminate to be in violation. There simply needs only to be a discriminatory effect. The only exception is if the workplace policy or requirement qualifies as a ‘bona fide occupational requirement’ (BFOR). In order for a policy or workplace task to qualify as a BFOR, there are three points that must be satisfied that the courts have established. Below are each of the points along with an explanation as it relates to workplace policies or job requirements.

  1. The employer must show that the standard (policy/requirement) is rational in relation to the performance of the job.

This is a simple evaluation of whether the standard in question helps to fulfill a workplace goal. For instance, being able to lift 10 lbs. for an office worker may be required to access and retrieve large stacks of files. Having the requirement of being able to lift 10 lbs. in this case would qualify as a job requirement that rationally connects to the job.

  1. The standard in question must have been adopted in an honest and good faith belief that it is necessary to fulfil the work-related purpose.

The employer must also adopt the standard with the belief that it will fulfill a workplace goal or function. Maintaining the above example, the requirement of being able to lift 10 lbs. of weight for the purpose of retrieving needed work materials (such as large documents, files, etc.) would qualify as a good-faith measure. Being able to retrieve files on a regular basis that one is required to work with is a work-related purpose that would require someone to physically lift a minimal amount of weight.

  1. The standard in question must be reasonably necessary to accomplish the legitimate work-related purpose.

The final requirement is the most difficult to establish. In order to establish that the standard is reasonably necessary, employers must show that they would suffer ‘undue hardship’ by accommodating the individual. This step requires employers to explore alternatives that are less discriminatory and still accomplish the work related goal. Sticking with the above example, for a worker that cannot lift 10 lbs. due to disability, reasonable alternatives may include having other workers assist the worker when they are unable to lift the necessary documents/files, providing electronic files instead, or so on.

The idea is that it must be possible to accommodate the individual so that they can perform the essential duties required for their job. If this is not a possibility, then the employer has satisfied the requirements to establish the policy or work requirement is a BFOR. Typically, accommodation requires an employer to adjust working conditions so that the employee is able to perform the essential duties of the job. If the employer is unable to accommodate the employee to this point, then the burden of accommodation has been met.

Concluding Remarks:
Once a workplace standard is established as a BFOR, an employer is not required to accommodate. However, it is always advisable to explore alternatives to avoid unnecessary litigation. When exploring alternatives for accommodation it is essential that employers take an approach of good faith. This includes joint problem solving between the employee and considering doctor opinions if available. When in doubt, it is always best to seek the advice of an employment lawyer, as accommodation can present unique challenges that require legal expertise.

I felt forced to resign as a result of an illness or disability – what are my entitlements?

| April 27th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Disability and Human Rights Law in the Workplace:

Employees have the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of discriminatory grounds, which includes Illness or disability. If an employee is faced with an illness or disability and needs accommodation to complete their work duties, an employer is obligated to accommodate to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, there have been instances where rather than accommodating, managers or employers will seek to dismiss an employee or make the employee’s situation difficult to the point where they are forced to resign. This may include harassment, refusal to accommodate, or other actions that target the worker’s disability or illness in order to make work intolerable. In such instances, employee can quit and claim constructive dismissal. This simply means that the employer created an environment that would force any reasonable person to resign – in the eyes of the courts, this is the same as a wrongful dismissal.

Damages:

An employee that is wrongfully terminated is entitled to their severance package in addition to any entitlements for damages under human rights law.  Under human rights law, damages will be assessed by the seriousness of the discrimination and the effect it had on the employee (mental distress). Seriousness is assessed by the duration of the harassment suffered or an employee’s length of employment. This can apply to any harassment by management or supervisors, or coworkers that targets the illness/disability of an individual in the workplace. Under human rights law, these damages are intended to right the wrong of the violation suffered by the victim – not to ‘punish’ the employer. However, for extremely reprehensible acts, the courts seek to punish the action itself in order to send a message of retribution, denunciation and deterrence.  To highlight the difference, consider the case of Strudwick v. Applied Consumer & Clinical Evaluations, 2016 (ONCA).

Strudwick (Vicky) v. Applied Consumer & Clinical Evaluations:

In Strudwick v. Applied Consumers, Strudwick was an employee of 15 years that suddenly developed severe deafness from an unknown cause. Applied Consumers refused to accommodate Vicky, and her supervisor and general manager started a course of “public belittling, harassment and isolation in ways relating to her disability” and took additional action to make Vicky’s deafness more difficult in relation to her work duties. For instance, her supervisor made other workers call Vicky instead of using email for any inquiries, making it near impossible for Vicky to perform her job. At one point, management suggested that Vicky quit and claim disability. It was clear that these actions were done to force Vicky to resign. Management eventually dismissed Vicky on frivolous claims in front of her coworkers in a humiliating manner.

The termination was found to be wrongful dismissal and Vicky was awarded her entitled severance pay. Further, Vicky also was awarded $40 000 in damages for the violations she suffered under human rights law to rectify the wrongs. The judge, however, felt that simply rectifying the wrongs here did not denounce the nature of the actions management took. An additional $55 000 was awarded in punitive damages due to management’s harsh, malicious and reprehensible actions leading to termination.

Concluding Remarks:

The case above resulted in $246 049 in total damages due to further damages awarded for intentional infliction of mental distress and aggravated damages. If you are a worker faced with a situation of discrimination and harassment, it is important to seek legal consultation. Assessing damages for human rights violations may extend beyond human rights legislation for actions that are morally reprehensible. It is always best to seek the advice of an employment lawyer to ensure you receive just compensation in extreme cases.