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Taking the blame for workplace strife

Sometimes the responsibility for a poisoned work environment can be spread around

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It’s a phrase employers never want to hear — “poisoned work environment.”

Not only does the phrase raise the spectre of liability for legal quagmires like constructive dismissal, harassment and discrimination, it can also be something that seriously hinders productivity. Whether it’s caused by employees or management, employers should act quickly and decisively to fix any workplace problems that contribute to such an environment.

But a poisoned work environment doesn’t just happen — people make it happen. So what if one of the people who makes it happen complains about it? How should an employer handle a complaint from an employee who’s a perpetrator, as well as a victim, of bad behaviour in the workplace?

A British Columbia court recently dealt with a constructive dismissal complaint from a manager who claimed she was pushed out of her job by the strife between her department and employees in another department, as well as within her department. The manager claimed the frequent sniping and complaining caused her to suffer stress and depression, and the employer undermined her authority by overturning a disciplinary decision against one of her staff. She also filed a workers’ compensation claim for her stress.

However, the court found the manager contributed as much to the negative environment as anyone else. The manager made insulting comments about workers in the other department, sent rude emails and argued, often using bad language, with her own staff. She also had an ongoing antagonistic relationship with one of her direct reports. In addition, it wasn’t part of her duties to issue discipline — that was the job of the supervisor who overturned her decision.

The court found the conditions for constructive dismissal didn’t exist, since the manager didn’t do much to alleviate the situation, and the employer had in fact attempted to resolve some of the issues, but was unsuccessful. By filing the constructive dismissal suit, the manager repudiated her employment contract and terminated the employment relationship, said the court.

This decision seems to indicate employers shouldn’t necessarily panic if they have a constructive dismissal suit filed against them. If accusations of a poisoned work environment are thrown about, the employer isn’t the only one who may have to take responsibility for it.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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