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

| April 27th, 2017 | No Comments »

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.

Employee Medicinal Marijuana Use and Workplace Policy: What Are the Implications?

| March 6th, 2017 | No Comments »

If an employer has a workplace policy that restricts or prohibits the use of medicinal marijuana this could in effect be grounds for discrimination under human rights law. Although the policy may not explicitly target an individual, or be discriminatory due to the language used, it is the effect of the policy that is important. If the effect of the policy results in an individual facing inadvertent discrimination, then the employer must accommodate up to the point of undue hardship.

For instance, suppose a workplace policy limits the use of medicinal marijuana to certain times during the working day. This may not seem discriminatory since the employer does allow those individuals that need the use of medicinal marijuana to do so; however, there may be certain individuals that are negatively impacted. Certain cases may involve an individual that deals with unpredictable chronic pain. If proper treatment for this individual involves the use of medicinal marijuana on an as-needed-basis, then any policy that restricts such use would in effect be discriminatory.

An employer would legally be legally obligated to accommodate in instances where individuals are adversely affected up to the point of ‘undue’ hardship. Simply, the employer must accommodate in a way that would allow an individual to perform the essential duties of the job unless doing so results in unreasonable hardship for the employer. ‘Undue’ hardship is an elusive standard in employment law so if you are faced with any concerns of medicinal marijuana use in the workplace and workplace policy, seeking the consultation of an employment law expert is necessary. Safety sensitive workplaces also add an extra element of complexity. This would require the employer seeking information on the effects the medically prescribed marijuana has on the individual in relation to their job duties and workplace safety, just as would be required for any other medically prescribed drugs. Again, the advice of an employment law expert is strongly recommended in these circumstances.

What age discrimination looks like in the workplace

| January 11th, 2017 | No Comments »

“We do not want to invest in someone who will retire so soon.”

“Perhaps you would benefit from working with people your own age.”

“We prefer to maintain our youthful culture.”

“We prefer to hire more mature employees.”

What do all of these statements have in common? In each one, the speaker is drawing a distinction between the recipient of the statement, and those of a different age group, which negatively affects the recipient.  In the workplace, this can amount to discrimination on the basis of age, or “ageism”.

Age discrimination in the workplace is illegal, and all employees over the age of 18 (with limited exceptions) benefit from the anti-discrimination provisions of federal and Ontario human rights legislation.

Age discrimination can occur anytime an employee is unfairly distinguished because of his or her age.  Ageism does not need to be overt, or plain and obvious, in order to constitute discrimination.  In fact, ageism is quite often subtle, and done without malice or realization that ageism is occurring.

For example, an employer may want to maintain a certain culture that is more prevalent amoung younger generations, thereby denying employment to a senior applicant in the process.  While the employer’s intent may have been innocent, the consequence is that an older job applicant has been unfairly denied employment for no reason other than his or her date of birth.

Similarly, an employer’s desire to maintain a more mature workplace may inadvertently hold younger employees to higher standards in order to obtain employment.  The employer’s intent may be sincere, but the way in which prospective employees are vetted may not be.

Here are some important things both employers and employees should remember in order to avoid age discrimination:

  • Employers cannot deny a benefit or opportunity (such as employment, promotions, raises, etc.) to an employee that is in anyway motivated by the employee’s age
  • Mandatory retirement after a certain age is illegal
  • Even though laws dealing with age discrimination only apply to employees over 18 years of age, employers are still bound by their duties of good faith and fair dealing in connection with their younger employees
  • Anti-age discrimination laws apply not only during employment, but during the application and screening process as well.

Author: Marc Kitay, Employment Lawyer

5 Things That Make For a Hostile Work Environment

| December 12th, 2016 | No Comments »

Hostile Work EnvironmentA hostile work environment is created when an employer or colleague behaves in such a way that it is difficult or impossible for an employee to continue working. A hostile work environment is often considered a form of harassment.

Below are five actions that can accidentally, or on purpose, make for a hostile work environment, and how to resolve them:

  1. Verbal abuse or physical threats against an employee’s well-being. It goes without saying that yelling, swearing, or making verbal threats of physical harm towards an employee will create a hostile work environment. Violence itself is not necessary, the fear of harm may be enough.
  1. Insulting or degrading comments based on the personal characteristics set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Comments or actions that are unwelcome and based on personal traits like race, age, gender, religion or family status, to name a few, will create a hostile work environment.
  1. Unwelcome sexual remarks or contact, leering, unwelcome requests for dates, displays of sexually offensive pictures, or the spreading of sexual rumours. In addition to creating a hostile work environment, such behavior may also result in a claim of sexual harassment.
  1. Conduct that intimidates, humiliates or demeans an employee. Insults, name calling, or the spreading of rumours can amount to workplace bullying, and a hostile work environment.
  1. Targeting a particular employee by providing them with excessive and unjustified criticism, impossible goals and deadlines, or sabotaging the employee’s work. Such behavior is conducted in bad faith and is another form of bullying.

It is the employer’s responsibility to address and prevent conduct that has created a hostile work environment. An employee faced with a hostile work environment should report any harassing behavior to a superior. Once the employer is made aware of the allegations of harassment, there is an obligation on the employer to investigate and resolve the situation.

Employers are required to prevent hostile work environments from developing.  Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers with five or more employees are required to prepare a workplace policy about workplace violence and harassment. Employers must also develop and maintain a written program to implement the policy, which must include measures and procedures as to how workers are to report workplace harassment, as well as setting out how incidents or complaints will be investigated and dealt with.

Finally, if an employee is subjected to behavior that is in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the employer may be faced with a human rights claim if they allow the hostile work environment to continue or develop.  Employers should take allegations of a hostile work environments seriously, and also be pro-active in fostering a safe and healthy work environment.

Author: Whitney Manfro, Whitten & Lublin

Holiday Party & Corporate Liability

| November 29th, 2016 | No Comments »

holiday party at workA staff holiday party is a great way of celebrating the holiday season.  It can also be an effective way of showing appreciation to employees.  These events can be lots of fun, but what many employers often forget is that they can attract unwanted liability. 

The most common types of legal issues employers face as a result of staff parties are related to harassment and alcohol consumption.  The following are brief guidelines that employers should carefully consider in order to create a fun-filled holiday celebration, while avoiding legal liability.

Harassment

An employer can be held liable for harassment, including sexual harassment, even if it occurs after hours at a staff social event.  The following are simple things that employers can do to not only help reduce the risk of harassment, but also the risk of liability if harassment does occur: 

  • Develop and circulate an anti-harassment policy that clearly states that it applies to all work functions, including all social events;
  • Members of management should be reminded that they are expected to set an example for other employees during workplace functions;
  • Invitations for a holiday party should include a reminder that the anti-harassment policy extends to the event;
  • Consider inviting non-employees to the event.  The presence of customers, suppliers, or significant others can help reduce the occurrence of harassment or offensive behaviour;
  • Take steps to limit the consumption of alcohol;
  • Anti-harassment training should have fact scenarios that include work social events; and
  • Have an action plan ready in the event of an incident of harassment, and be prepared to implement it. 

Realistically, employers may not be able to fully control how guests behave at social events.  However, they can certainly avoid being held responsible for another guest’s conduct if they take proactive steps to help prevent the conduct, and if they take appropriate and swift action in response to inappropriate conduct.

Alcohol Consumption

The consumption of alcohol at a work function can lead to undesirable conduct by guests.  One of the main concerns employers should have is being held liable for injuries or damages caused by an intoxicated guest.

A social host is not typically liable for injuries/damages resulting from a guest who has consumed alcohol at the host’s residence.  However, employers are not ordinary social hosts.  The case law in Canada suggests that employers who host staff holiday party owe a duty of care to their employees which is closer to that of a commercial host.  Consequently, an employer who hosts a party has a greater duty to protect intoxicated individuals and the public than a social host. 

To help reduce the risk of liability arising from an intoxicated guest’s actions, employers should be following these simple tips:

  • Only serve a reasonable amount of alcohol to every guest.   Effective methods include the issuance of a set amount of drink tickets per guest, and limiting the period during which alcohol is served;
  • Do not provide open access to alcohol; 
  • Hire certified, licensed and insured professionals to look after the distribution of alcohol;
  • Serve food at the event;
  • Prevent “binge drinking” by discouraging/prohibiting drinking games;
  • Offer a selection of non-alcoholic beverages;
  • Hold the event off-site at a licensed and insured establishment;
  • Appoint members of management to monitor alcohol intake by guests, warn people against driving intoxicated, and to arrange taxis for intoxicated guests;
  • Provide paid transportation to and from the event for all guests; Invitations to the event should include a statement discouraging drinking and driving and excessive alcohol consumption.  Similar announcements should be made regularly throughout the event;
  • Do not conduct any business at the event; and
  • Avoid drinking with employees at other sites after the conclusion of the social event.

If an employer wishes to throw a staff party without having to worry about liability, it should refrain from cutting corners at the organizational stage.  Careful and thoughtful preparation is the key to a successful and liability-free event.

What to do about Bullying in the Workplace

| November 17th, 2016 | No Comments »

bullying in the workplaceBullying was unacceptable when you were a kid on the playground.  It is no different that you are adult in the workplace.  Whether it is your co-worker or your boss, it is not allowed.  If you experience bullying at work, you can confront the bully.  If you are not comfortable doing that (perhaps because your boss is the bully), consider contacting a human resources representative, a member of the company’s joint health and safety committee, or your boss’ boss.  It is also important to review any discrimination / harassment / bullying policies and complaint processes that applies in your workplace, as this will help guide your path.

Usually, the complaint should be handled by someone objective (not the person you complained about), and both you and the person you are complaining about will be given an opportunity to explain what happened.  Occupational health and safety legislation sets out certain basic requirements for harassment investigations.

Since bullying can often be difficult to prove, do your best to keep track of instances of bullying – keep emails where the bully’s tone was unreasonable, keep doctors notes regarding any impact the bullying has had on you, and create a journal listing the details of every time you felt bullied – details like where it happened, when it happened, who witnessed it, and what exactly what was said.  Try to describe the event in a fair and objective way.  These steps will help to ensure that your complaint is taken seriously.

If none of those private options work, consider contacting the Ministry of Labour.  If the company does not fulfill its basic obligations to investigate, an inspector from the Ministry can appoint an investigator, at the company’s expense, to ensure that your complaint is investigated and that it is done properly.

Of course, you can also seek legal advice at any time.  Depending on the nature of the bullying, the company could be liable for, among other things, constructively dismissing you, breaching your human rights, or intentionally inflicting mental distress on you.

Author: Stephen Wolpert, Whitten & Lublin

Recognizing Signs of Discrimination in the Workplace

| March 8th, 2016 | No Comments »

discrimination in the workplaceThe most common form of discrimination in the workplace is not immediately obvious and you may not even realize that it’s happening to you. Identifying subtle forms of discrimination requires examining all of the circumstances to determine if you have been treated differently from your colleagues on the basis of such identifying factors as your age, gender, race, or disability.

Some indicators that there might be an issue in your workplace include: a lack of diversity; repeatedly being passed over for a promotion even though you have strong performance reviews; exclusion from training or career development opportunities; favouritism in assigning high profile or lucrative projects; receiving differential treatment (in comparison to your co-workers) with respect to discipline; suddenly receiving negative performance reviews after a long history of positive reviews; being asked to perform tasks with unreasonable deadlines (i.e. you are being set up for failure); exclusion from opportunities for social interaction; being held to a higher performance standard; and unwarranted criticism of soft skills such as your “communication style”.

If you suspect that you are being discriminated against, you should begin keeping a detailed diary of the above types of events and make note of any specific incidents, including dates, times and names of any potential witnesses. You should also consider consulting with a lawyer to discuss your particular situation and to obtain assistance in making a formal complaint where it is warranted.

Author: Priya Sarin, Partner at Whitten & Lublin

Q&A: Do you have the right to a harassment-free work environment?

| June 1st, 2015 | 1 Comment »

QUESTION

I have decided that my experience with my boss is in fact harassment and bullying. My performance is over managed, and performance reviews are used as a form of discipline, not coaching. I’m unjustly criticized and made to feel unwelcome. It’s humiliating. I have a doctor’s note detailing the high levels of anxiety and panic I developed. What options do I have? 

ANSWER

Legislation and a Harassment-Free Work Environment

Under Ontario’s occupational health and safety legislation, you have a right to a harassment-free work environment. The actions to which you are subjected must amount to something more than just a personality conflict, and rise up to something along the lines of malicious treatment. You may want to review your company’s anti-harassment policy (if one exists) and file a written harassment complaint. Your employer is obligated to investigate the allegations, and make a good faith determination as to the best course of action to address them.

Participating in an Investigation

You have a right to participate in the investigation and learn the outcome. You also have a right to be free from reprisals (i.e. punishments) for exercising your right to file the complaint. If this happens or the complaint is mishandled, you may have the right to treat your employment as terminated and seek a severance from the company.

Stepping Away From the Situation 

Given your health situation, it would make sense for you to be away from the workplace while this is happening. You can send your doctor’s note to your manager or HR, and inquire about your company’s short-term disability benefits – and if necessary, long-term disability benefits – for income replacement while you’re off work. If the company does not offer these benefits, you may be eligible for Employment Insurance medical benefits for up to 15 weeks. That will give you some time to regroup and consider further options going forward. You have the right to a harassment-free work environment and can step away from a situation that is affecting your health and well-being.

Q&A: Workplace Harassment

| April 6th, 2015 | No Comments »

I have been harassed by three of my co-workers in my workplace for one year. The harassment has come to an extreme where I could not take it anymore. As a result, I was unable to sleep at night and have been seeing a doctor. I finally quit my job last week because the screaming and targeting my work was unbearable. I gave the company two weeks’ notice, after which the harassment continued.  Management did nothing although they were made aware of my complaints.  

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a workplace free from harassment.

Harassment under the law is defined as conduct or comments that are known or should be known as unwelcome.  Threats and intimidation, offensive comments and belittling behavior are examples of bullying and harassment.

Not all comments are considered harassment.  You mention the targeting of your work.  Managing your performance and difference of opinion do not amount to harassment.  This is why it’s a good idea to meet with a lawyer to get a formal opinion on whether this behavior crosses the line.

Nevertheless, the obligation to provide a workplace free from harassment requires the employer to take your complaints seriously, do an investigation and take positive action.  It does not matter if the alleged harassment came from management or it was the doing of coworkers, contractors or even customers.

Your facts indicate that not only did the employer fail to address the unwelcome behavior, they ignored it, the behavior persisted and it impacted your health to the extent that you were forced to resign.  This may be considered a constructive dismissal as you were forced to leave gainful employment because of a poisoned working environment and if so, you will be awarded damages while you look for another job and possibly additional damages as a result of the employer’s failure to take your complaints seriously.

Legal implications from 2014 workplace employment cases

| January 28th, 2015 | No Comments »

Big employment cases from 2014 drew a good amount of attention to workplace law. Specifically, it demonstrated the legal implications to employees and employers.  To date, we continue to see the consequences of these fallouts. Whether through poor judgment, ignorance of the law or quite simply wrongful conduct, Canadians and Americans have been at the forefront of workplace legal disputes. Some cases that have drawn media attention include the Jian Ghomeshi scandal regarding allegations of sexual harassment, Donald Sterling and his discriminatory comments, the two Liberal MP’s accused of harassment. The list goes on.

Toronto Employment Lawyer, Daniel Lublin discusses in his most recent Globe and Mail article five (5) key points to look out for regarding employment issues that arose in 2014, and will continue to have an impact in 2015. These include:

  1. The freedom of speech fallout;
  2. Behavior unbecoming;
  3. Probing Allegations;
  4. Boomers Beware; and
  5. Honesty is the best Policy.

To understand these key points in great detail, read Daniel Lublin’s Globe and Mail column and full article Fallout still spreading from big workplace cases