Employee claims that include allegations of a poisoned or toxic work environment have become increasingly common in recent years. One such claim, General Motors of Canada Ltd. v. Johnson, recently made its way to the Ontario Court of Appeal. This gave Ontario’s highest court the opportunity to provide some much needed clarification on this area of law.
General Motors of Canada Ltd. v. Johnson (“General Motors”)
In General Motors, Yohan Johnson (“Johnson”) claimed that he had been constructively dismissed from his employment at GM due to a racially poisoned work environment. Johnson, who had worked for GM for over five years as a production supervisor in the body shop, took a medical leave from work in 2005 due to stress. He claimed that he was disabled because of racial discrimination in the workplace.
Specifically, Johnson alleged that another employee had refused to receive training from Johnson because Johnson was black. The company completed three investigations into this allegation of discrimination and each time concluded that the employee’s conduct was not racially motivated.
Johnson remained on medical leave for two years. He then attempted to return to work at GM but requested a different position. GM offered him a new position in the paint shop but Johnson refused to return to work because he felt as though he was still vulnerable to discrimination in this position. GM took Johnson’s refusal to return to work as a voluntary resignation and Johnson brought a claim against GM for constructive dismissal.
At trial, the court found that Johnson was a victim of racism that poisoned his work environment and resulted in his constructive dismissal. The trial judge found that GM failed to take Johnson’s complaint seriously and failed to conduct a reasonable and comprehensive investigation into his complaint. Johnson was awarded $160,000.00 in damages.
However, GM successfully appealed the trial court’s decision. The Ontario Court of Appeal allowed GM’s appeal, finding that the evidence did not support the trial judge’s conclusion that there had been racially motivated conduct. The Court of Appeal also found that there was no direct evidence of racism towards Johnson by anyone at GM and that the trial judge fundamentally misapprehended the evidence. As a result, Johnson’s claim against GM was dismissed.
There are a few key takeaways from the Court of Appeal’s decision in General Motors that human resource professionals should make note of.
First, the Court of Appeal confirmed that in order for a workplace to become poisoned there must be “serious wrongful behavior”. This behavior might include discrimination, bullying, threats, or harassment.
In addition, aside from particularly egregious single incidents, the wrongful behavior must be persistent or repeated in order to create a poisoned work environment. Therefore, any wrongful behavior should be appropriately addressed at the outset, as allowing it to continue may result in a finding that a workplace has been poisoned.
Finally, the court will not focus on the employee’s subjective feelings or beliefs about the work environment in determining whether a workplace has been poisoned and whether an employee has been constructively dismissed. Rather, the court will consider whether there is evidence which, to an objective reasonable bystander, would support the conclusion that a poisoned work environment had been created and whether a reasonable person in the same situation as the employee would have felt that the essential terms of the employment contract were being substantially changed. If the court finds that an employee is being subjected to a poisonous work environment that has made his or her continued employment intolerable, this will amount to a constructive dismissal.