Soured friendship not hostile workplace

Acrimonious relationship between co-workers who were former friends not enough to create a poisoned work environment: Court

An Alberta employee who had a falling out with a co-worker who was a former friend was not forced out by a hostile work environment, the Alberta Provincial Court has ruled.

Pamela Lamb joined Calgary-based Gibbs Gage Architects as a receptionist in 2002. In 2006, she told the firm she would resign if she wasn’t given more responsibility, so Gibbs Gage made her an office administrator.

Lamb became friends with Lynne McCormick, an accountant — and later Gibbs Gage’s controller — who started at the firm around the same time. In late 2007, Lamb became pregnant and the two women spent less time with each other, eventually cooling their friendship. Both were upset about the end of the friendship but neither was sure why it happened.

Their relationship worsened, and it got to the point where they only interacted when there were financial issues that concerned both of them. There were two incidents in February 2008 where Lamb took offense with the way McCormick spoke to her, claiming that McCormick yelled at her and used inappropriate language.

When Lamb returned from maternity leave in February 2009, things seemed to have improved and the two women took breaks together. However, there were two more incidents where Lamb claimed McCormick disrespected her and spoke to her in a raised voice.

Lamb sought advice from the HR department in the fall of 2009, and it was suggested the women meet and discuss Lamb’s concerns, but Lamb didn’t think it was necessary, saying that they had a “perfectly civil working relationship.” Lamb later met with one of Gibbs Gage’s partners to discuss her concerns and was once again advised to discuss things with McCormick in person. Lamb again declined the suggestion.

In December, Lamb and McCormick had a verbal confrontation over staff Christmas gifts and they were told any further outbursts would not be tolerated.

Lamb was off work until after Christmas to care for her sick child. When she returned in January 2010, she provided Gibbs Gage with a letter of resignation stating she was leaving for family reasons. Lamb also told co-workers she was leaving on “her choice.” However, at her exit interview, Lamb raised her concerns with McCormick and said her work environment was hostile. Lamb soon filed a constructive dismissal suit, claiming she was forced to resign due to a hostile work environment and was owed six months’ pay in lieu of notice.

The court found there was insufficient evidence that Lamb was pushed out of her job by her work environment. By her own words, Lamb had described her relationship with McCormick as “perfectly civil,” even after the first four incidents. It was only after the last incident in December 2009 that she raised any concerns, and even then it was at her exit interview and not in her letter of resignation, said the court.

The court found there was no proof of harassment and, even if there was, Gibbs Gage took steps to resolve the situation by recommending meetings to discuss the problem. It was Lamb who refused to participate, giving the firm “no real opportunity to continue and follow up” after the Christmas gift argument, said the court.

The court dismissed Lamb’s constructive dismissal claim. See Lamb v. Gibbs Gage Architects, 2011 CarswellAlta 2401 (Alta. Prov. Ct.).

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