Is strict, unpleasant management style a human rights violation?

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

Many employers like to run a tight ship. Professionalism is important to success as a business and employers have policies with varying degrees of strictness with regards to things like dress codes, workplace conduct and computer use. There are also different types of management styles that run the gamut from the relaxed manager who tries to be a friend to employees to the taskmaster who expects high results and doesn’t tolerate any goofing off.

But where is the line between running a tight ship and harassment? How stern and restrictive can a manager be before it becomes bullying? Can employees file a human rights complaint because of a strict manager and would they have a shot at winning?

This type of situation came to light recently when some former employees of the Ontario ombudsman’s office — and one current employee — complained to the province’s human rights tribunal of discrimination stemming from the strict office rules imposed by ombudsman Andre Marin and his managers.

The complaints relate to criticism of the employees by management and performance management programs they were placed on, which opened the door to further criticism. The employees say this treatment had psychological effects on them and one went on stress leave and another resigned. They claimed the performance management programs were discriminatory because they seemed to target people who were visible minorities who were older or overweight.

Marin denied the accusations and told the Toronto Star he was hired to whip the office of the ombudsman into shape, as the government felt it was ineffective and was considering getting rid of it. His strict demands were intended to improve performance and efficiency and didn’t target anyone, he said.

There are many instances of workplaces where employees feel their bosses are too strict and demanding, and stress is a common part of work. But if an employee feels she’s being treated poorly and is stressed, is that a violation of her human rights? It’s a tricky area, because in a situation like that with the Ontario ombudsman, unless there’s clear discrimination under grounds protected under human rights legislation, entertaining claims from disgruntled employees that arise out of workplace stress or strict management styles could open the door to a flood of complaints that will clog the human rights system and cause headaches for employers.

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

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