When an employment relationship deteriorates, tensions can run high and sharp words might be exchanged between employers and employees. The case of Sweeting v. Mok, 2017 ONCA 203 provides a caution to employers to watch their language: something said in an argument with an employee may come back to bite them in court.
Tanya Sweeting was a nurse employed in a small medical practice by the doctor. Due to the departure of an administrative employee, Sweeting began to take on significant administrative duties in addition to her nursing practice. Sweeting’s increased workload was an ongoing source of friction in the workplace. Matters ultimately came to a head in a heated conversation between her and the employer, in which the employer angrily said:
“Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and seeing your ugly face.”
Sweeting alleged that with those words the employer terminated her employment. She argued that the language used, in the context of a small workplace, created a situation where the employer’s words could only be objectively viewed as a termination.
The trial judge agreed, holding that a reasonable person working in a close, professional work environment would have interpreted the employer’s statement as a termination. She found that the personal insult and direction to “get out” created a situation that a reasonable observer would perceive as an intent to dismiss. The trial judge also noted that the employer made no attempt to rectify any misunderstanding when Sweeting was reduced to tears, and concluded that there was no intention for her to return to work.
The trial judge found, in the alternative, that the actions of the employer constituted constructive dismissal. In her view, although there was only one incident, the actions of the employer effectively destroyed the ability of Sweeting to continue working at the employer’s medical practice.
The Court of Appeal agreed, upholding the trial judge’s decision.
This case highlights the importance of employers maintaining their composure in the workplace. While conflicts might be inevitable in a deteriorating employment relationship, employers must be mindful of their words. Certain language may support the position that the employee has been terminated, even if that was not the employer’s intent. It is never a good idea to try to manage an employee in a moment of frustration or anger. When things get heated, employers are advised to pause and take some time to collect themselves. Venting in the workplace is not just unproductive, but can have significant legal repercussions.
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