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When Mother Nature turns angry

If you don't trust your employees to work from home, you have bigger problems than just the weather

As I write this, a winter storm is set to barrel down on southern Ontario. And no, this isn’t going to be one of those annoying “Oh my, it’s snowing in Toronto in the winter” missives that give the denizens of Canada’s largest city such a bad rap.

But I will say this — I made it to the office in record time this morning. Traffic in the 6 (hey, I can sound Drake-ish can’t I?) is notorious, so you should appreciate this: I didn’t touch my brakes this morning. I just cruised right in to the office.

It reminded me of my university commuting days in Windsor, Ont., where I could make it from one end of the city to another in 15 minutes flat.

There’s only one explanation for this lack of traffic, and that’s the impending snow storm that will dump anywhere from 10 to 30 centimetres, which in this winter of no snow and mild weather is going to feel like Armageddon. Clearly, a lot of people chose to work from home today, took a vacation day or maybe just called in sick to avoid the traffic and weather headache that’s coming this afternoon.

Over the years, we’ve looked at the issue of white knuckle commutes and whether (or weather) employers could be liable if they kept the office open as a storm was bearing down. In 2011, Stuart Rudner — an employment lawyer with Rudner MacDonald LLP in Toronto — tackled the question for Canadian Employment Law Today’s Ask an Expert feature.

“Generally speaking, an employer is not responsible for ensuring an employee’s safe passage to and from her place of work,” he wrote. “Different principles may apply when an employee is asked to travel to different locations, either locally or globally, in the course of their duties. However, employees are still ultimately responsible for getting to and from work safely in most situations.”

Legally, employers seem to be off the hook. They can pretty much open and close their doors with impunity, no matter what Mother Nature is tossing their way. Things can get a bit murky in individual circumstances, where an employee — for example — calls in and says he does not think it is safe to travel to work and is told he must show up. Rudner said, in theory, a company could face potential liability if it knew the commute would be particularly dangerous. The old test of “Did it act reasonable?” seems to apply in this case.

But what about ethically? Or just from a good HR practice standpoint? Are there times when closing the office early, or completely shutting it down, makes good business sense?

My employer, Thomson Reuters, has closed its doors on a handful of occasions during my 17 years here. It’s not a decision taken lightly, but in every case where it happened I can say the majority of employees were appreciative of the gesture.

On one occasion, a missive came from the CEO to clear out the office at 3 p.m. as a particularly nasty blizzard set its sight on the city. I happened to be in all day training at a venue across the street, and a member of the HR department trekked over and shut down the training. Staying wasn’t an option.

On other occasions, a decision was made to shut the office for the entire day — that is a rare occurrence indeed, but saving employees hours upon hours sitting in their car in bumper to bumper traffic in terrible driving conditions could pay off. It’s one of those things that can add to engagement. I know in the past when it’s happened, friends and family have said “It took me two hours to get to work. I wish I worked for your company.”

In an era where a lot of work can be done remotely, it makes sense to give employees the flexibility to decide whether or not to come in — as long as that privilege isn’t abused. But that goes with any policy. And if you don’t trust your employees to work from home, then you have far bigger problems than whether or not to close the office.

We’ll see how much snow southern Ontario gets with this wallop. For now, I’m relishing the morning commute and looking forward to a well deserved cup of hot chocolate by the fireplace later — after I finish digging out the driveway, of course.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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