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Fired for a workplace romance

New Brunswick court finds that employer was justified with termination
employment law

By Anique Dublin and Stuart Rudner

Can engaging in a romantic relationship with a co-worker really be grounds for terminating someone’s employment? Generally speaking, the answer is no. But if that relationship creates a conflict of interest, or if a person is dishonest about it, then just cause for dismissal may exist.

Lying to or misleading an employer when asked about a workplace relationship may be grounds for dismissal, especially if the worker is in a position of trust.

In the recent case Abrams v. RTO Asset Management, the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench considered when a workplace romance could lead to just cause for dismissal.

Background

James Abrams worked for RTO Asset Management for over 15 years. At the time of his dismissal, he was regional manager for New Brunswick.

In 2017, RTO became aware that Abrams was involved in a romantic relationship with an employee whom he supervised, and he had failed to report the relationship, as required.

As a result, RTO conducted an investigation which not only confirmed the existence of the relationship but also revealed that Abrams was giving advice to RTO based on his desire to benefit the employee. The investigation also found that Abrams was advising the employee based on inside information about future events.

As a consequence, on May 29, 2017, RTO met with Abrams and terminated his employment. 

Abrams then brought an action against RTO for wrongful dismissal.

Decision

The court held that RTO had cause to terminate Abrams’ employment. In coming to its decision, the court relied on the Court of Appeal decision in Henry v. Foxco which stated:

“To determine if an employer has just cause to dismiss an employee, the trier of fact should ask two questions… (1) does the evidence establish employee misconduct on a balance of probabilities; and (2) if so, does the nature and degree of the misconduct warrant dismissal ‘because it gave rise to a breakdown in the employment relationship’; for example, did the misconduct violate ‘an essential condition of the employment contract, breach the faith inherent to the work relationship, or is fundamentally or directly inconsistent with the employee’s obligations to his or her employer.’”

The court held that the evidence established that Abrams acted inappropriately. He was making decisions based on his feelings for the employee and not the best interest of RTO. His decisions had a negative impact on RTO’s business.

The court held that had Abrams informed RTO of his relationship with the employee, RTO could have tailored its decisions in light of his disclosure.

The court concluded that Abrams knew that what he was doing was wrong and that this could have serious consequences, but he nevertheless continued the relationship with the employee for over one year.      

The court agreed with RTO that there was a breakdown in the employment relationship. Abrams had deliberately put himself in a conflict of interest and acted dishonestly; as a result, RTO no longer had confidence in or trusted Abrams.

Takeaway

Ultimately, romantic relationships are people’s own business, except when they negatively affect an employer’s legitimate business interest, create a conflict of interest, or otherwise impact the workplace.

If they do, or even could, then the employee should make their employer aware of the situation. In many cases involving a workplace romance, the dismissal is justified not due to the relationship itself but due to other factors such as dishonesty.

Had Abrams been honest about his relationship with the co-worker and followed RTO’s policy to disclose office romances, he could have avoided the severe loss of trust which ultimately helped RTO justify his dismissal.   

For an earlier discussion about this issue, see Dealing with romance in the workplace.

Anique Dublin is a law clerk and billing clerk at Rudner Law in Toronto.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, HAB Press. All rights reserved.

Stuart Rudner

Stuart Rudner, Employment Lawyer and MediatorStuart Rudner is the founder of Rudner Law (RudnerLaw.ca), a firm specializing in employment law. He is a senior employment lawyer, mediator and arbitrator. He can be reached at stuart@rudnerlaw.ca, (416) 864-8500 or (905) 209-6999, and you can follow him on Twitter @RudnerLaw.
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