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A constructive work environment versus constructive dismissal

Toxic office politics can bring not only legal risks, but also undesirable turnover
Employee engagement, retention
Regardless of what costs may come out of any legal action, what is the cost to the business for losing a top asset?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Office politics can be difficult to avoid sometimes, but they can be potentially devastating to a company’s business interests — especially when those politics get to the point where the legal rights of employees are threatened.

Compliance with employment standards isn’t just a legal necessity for companies, but it can also be a key part of staffing and recruiting needs. Many companies are coming around to the realization that an important element of a successful business is finding the best talent and keeping that talent around.

However, some still don’t realize that and experience higher-than-desired turnover due to a lack of engagement and dissatisfaction with office politics. Employment standards legislation exists to help protect the legal rights of workers, but it can also help steer employers towards the promised land of being an employer of choice for top talent.

If an employer walks the fine line between compliance and employment standards violations, it’s a warning to prospective employees that they might not want to be a part of it.

One particular black mark an employer can get against it is if it is found to have constructively dismissed an employee. Constructive dismissal is a particularly underhanded process where a company may not want an employee around, but instead of simply dismissing without cause and providing reasonable notice, the employer treats the employee or makes life difficult for the employee to the point where the employee just wants to leave.

If you’re a candidate for a job and hear that the company with which you’ve applied has done something like that, would you want to keep trying for that job, especially if you have other options? Or if your skills are in demand and you see people treated this way and office politics contributing to a toxic environment, are you going to want to stay? This is where top talent can be driven away.

This is something that came to mind when an associate — who works for a company with no association with my own — described the office politics at her place of employment. There were some serious problems with the way management treated different employees, especially one particular manager.

My associate is a highly skilled, professional individual who has been in a fair bit of demand and been able to find good positions that suit her professional and personal goals. However, since joining her current employer — with whom she has been for three years — there have been issues with different managers with different ideas.

After a delayed compensation analysis, discipline from one manager for following another manager’s instructions, and a letter of promotion followed by a directive to changer her job title back to her old job, my associate feels at the end of her rope. There are some potential liability issues with the employer regarding potential constructive dismissal and bad-faith conduct, but this individual — who is an asset to the company — has had enough and is looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Regardless of what costs may come out of any legal action, what is the cost to the business for losing a top asset — especially since it’s in favour of a management-level individual who is contributing to a toxic environment?

Companies need to follow employment standards to avoid the costs that can stem from legal actions against them. But it’s also important to use them as a base to foster a healthy and productive work environment that can attract and keep top talent — and avoid poisoning that work environment with bad office politics.

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

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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