These days, toxic bosses are a greater liability. When Richard Ayotte described himself as a “hands-on” manager, Marta Piresferreira did not think he meant it literally.

After nine years as an account manager for Bell Mobility, Piresferreira had become wary of her boss. Ayotte expressed his expectations forcefully, and with colourful language, and would sometimes yell when he sought someone’s attention.

Piresferreira was often on the receiving end. She felt vulnerable because of her age, sex and the highly competitive work environment, but she did not complain. Matters came to a head when she failed to resolve a client problem to Ayotte’s satisfaction. He yelled and swore at her, accusing her of not doing her job. Attempting to defend herself, she pointed to an e-mail on her BlackBerry that redeemed her work. Ayotte told her to get away from him. When she persisted, he pushed her on her shoulder, repeating she should get away.

Shaken, Piresferreira nonetheless followed Ayotte into his office to protest his behaviour. He responded profanely, insisting she leave, and quickly. When she returned to the office the following week, Piresferreira was met with a performance improvement plan, leading to termination if she did not improve. Refusing to sign it, she left and filed a complaint with human resources.

Instead of hearing back from human resources, Piresferreira received a letter stating her complaint had been investigated and closed, and that she was expected to attend an appointment to review her performance improvement plan.

Piresferreira became depressed thinking about returning to work under these conditions and decided to sue.

Madam Justice Catherine Aitken of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice rejected Bell’s defence that Piresferreira had orchestrated a constructive dismissal, and found Bell had failed to live up to the obligation that the employer treat employees with civility and respect.

She said the company had violated its duty to take reasonable steps to ensure its employee would not be subject to further physical or verbal abuse or intimidation by her manager.

The court was offended by the employer’s response to the physical assault and intimidation through an unwarranted performance improvement plan and found she had been constructively dismissed because the work environment was so hostile. Piresferreira was awarded more than $500,000 in damages because of her continuing disability.

The predisposition of the courts to apply their standards of civil behaviour to employment relationships requires a sophisticated approach to managing workplace disputes, and should include consideration of the following:

  • A policy requiring management to treat staff with civility and courtesy;
  • Human resources promptly and independently investigating complaints of workplace conduct without apprehension of reprisal from senior management;
  • Retaining outside counsel or investigators to conduct impartial investigations;
  • Protection of employees who complain of workplace misconduct from reprisal or appearance of reprisal;
  • Confronting of a poisoned work environment by addressing the sources of the behaviour; and
  • Referring managers or employees to anger management courses and warned of consequences of inappropriate behaviour.