A recent decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal clarified when a poisoned work environment will constitute constructive dismissal from employment. The employee in this case claimed that he had been subjected to “discriminatory treatment in the workplace based on racism”. The facts of the case are relatively complicated but the case provides an outline of the test for whether or not a workplace has been poisoned. 

The facts, in a nutshell, are as follows:

The plaintiff-employee, Yohann Johnson, claimed that another employee, Alex Markov, refused to participate in mandatory training, conducted by Johnson, because of Johnson’s race. According to Markov, his reason for not attending training with Johnson was because of insensitive comments Johnson made about the murder of Markov’s brother. The employer, General Motors of Canada Limited (GM), investigated the incident numerous times and was unable to find evidence that Markov’s conduct was racially motivated. Johnson subsequently went on a leave of absence, which he claimed was a consequence of GM’s investigations and his treatment by Markov.

Two years after commencing his leave of absence, Johnson was deemed fit to return to work. However, Johnson still claimed that he was “disabled” and could only work in an environment where he would not be in contact with Markov. GM offered Johnson two positions, both of which were in different buildings from where Markov worked (although they may have had some contact).  Johnson refused to accept either of these options, but did not provide any medical information to support this refusal. Accordingly, GM deemed Johnson to have resigned from his employment with GM.   Johnson brought a claim against GM, alleging that he had been constructively dismissed.

Trial Decision

At trial, the judge found in favour of Johnson and decided that Johnson had been constructively dismissed from his employment as a result of a poisoned work environment. The trial judge was of the view that GM did not take Johnson’s complaint of discrimination seriously, and failed to sufficiently investigate his allegation. The trial judge awarded Johnson approximately $530,000 in damages. GM appealed, arguing that the trial judge’s decision was unreasonable and was not supported by the evidence.

Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal commenced its analysis by stating:

It is well established that a trial judge’s findings and inferences of fact attract great deference from a reviewing court.  They cannot be disturbed on appeal unless they are infected by palpable and overriding error or are otherwise clearly wrong, unreasonable, or unsupported by the evidence…

The Court of Appeal then proceeded to overturn the trial judge’s decision. The Court Appeal was unable to find evidence sufficient to support the trial judge’s finding of a poisoned work environment. In fact, in the Court’s view, there was no evidence that Johnson was subjected to racist behaviour by Markov. The fact that Markov died before trial made it easier for the Court to make this decision, as there were no issues of credibility which would require greater deference to the trial judge.

Most of the Court of Appeal’s decision focuses on the specific facts of the case and why the facts do not support the trial judge’s finding that the work environment at GM was poisoned. However, throughout its decision, the Court provides useful guidance regarding what is required in order to successfully argue that constructive dismissal has occurred as a result of a poisoned work environment. Some of the Court’s more salient points are summarized here:

  • A poisoned work environment will lead to a finding of constructive dismissal only if “serious wrongful behaviour is demonstrated” which renders continued employment impossible.
  • The plaintiff has the onus of proving a poisoned workplace.
  • The “serious wrongful behaviour” must be “persistent or repeated” (although in some cases, the Court acknowledged, a single sufficiently egregious incident can result in poisoned work environment).
  • The test for whether constructive dismissal has occurred is an objective one (i.e., the question is not whether the plaintiff thought that the work environment had been poisoned; the question is whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s shoes would have come to that conclusion).
  • An employee’s dissatisfaction with the conclusion of a “legitimate grievance process” is not on its own sufficient to base a claim for constructive dismissal.

With respect to Johnson’s allegations of racism and a poisoned work environment, the Court viewed the series of incidents alleged by Johnson as a single incident, rather than “systemic or institutional racist behaviour”. Given the length of the employee’s tenure at GM (8 years), the incident did not, when viewed objectively, result in a poisoned work environment. The Court acknowledged that the investigations undertaken by GM were not perfect. However, such investigations were not sufficiently flawed so as to provide a basis for a constructive dismissal claim. Further the Court’s view was that GM’s offers to return Johnson were inconsistent with the argument that GM had constructively dismissed him from employment.

Our Views

Although the Court of Appeal’s decision on the merits was very fact-specific, this case provides some insight into what constitutes a poisoned work environment. An employee attempting to allege the workplace has been poisoned bears the burden of showing that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have viewed the employment relationship as at an end due to the alleged conduct.  To prevent these types of claims, employers should ensure they have policies and procedures in place to investigate and respond to employee misconduct to ensure that it doesn’t escalate into a poisoned workplace.